16 January 2019

‘Information key for consumers to address sustainability needs’ – OCU’s Belén Ramos on major CIRC-PACK survey

Between November 2017 and January 2018, 10,000 consumers in Belgium, Croatia, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the Istanbul district of Kartal were quizzed on plastic-related habits and preferences in a major survey commissioned by CIRC-PACK and conducted by Spanish consumer organisation OCU. For an in-depth look at the survey findings, caught up with OCU project officer Belén Ramos.

OCU was commissioned by CIRC-PACK to undertake a consumer survey on plastics in Europe. What was the main objective of this survey?

The main goal was to identify and analyse public perceptions and expectations in Europe about plastics in general, and more specifically, the plastic packaging value chain. With this survey we intended to find out as much information as possible about citizens’ behaviour – behaviour which should be considered by the CIRC-PACK consortium during the rollout of this project. For instance: when CIRC-PACK designs new packaging alternatives, tests new waste management streams, and even our communications and dissemination activities.

In general terms, what were the main findings of this consumer survey? What did it tell us about the attitudes of consumers to plastic products?

This was a very expansive survey, with a great many responses from citizens. But I would highlight three main findings:

Firstly, plastic for domestic use is considered by citizens to be a problem for the planet – one which uses many natural resources. However, when it comes to buying everyday packaged products, the environmental aspects of packaging exert only a moderate influence on citizens’ decision making. Quality and price are the main criteria. So we have this kind of ‘dysfunction’ whereby people are aware of the impact of plastic on the planet, but when it comes to buying, people are more concerned with other factors. In short, we are conscious of the problem, but we’re not taking too many actions – and this is something which stakeholders, including regulators, really need to address.

The second finding is that citizens wouldn’t consider new plastic types – biodegradable or compostable plastics – as their first choice when buying CIRC-PACK demonstration products (coffee capsules, coffee cups, kitchen trays, shampoo bottles). The exception however is Italy, where biodegradable alternatives are the preferred option. But notwithstanding this exception, in the other five countries in the survey, more than 50% of respondents would prefer conventional plastic options, or they don’t even have a clear preference when it comes to plastic packaging types.

The third highlight of this survey is that information has a key role to play when it comes to helping consumers addressing their sustainability needs. When it comes to information on newer, more environmentally friendly plastic materials, most citizens consider that they are not at all informed or largely uninformed. But a third of citizens say they want to be better informed. So the message we got from this is that finding trustworthy information channels is key to informing citizens on sustainability. I think we need to create a credible, independent, representative authority to disseminate such information if we want people to learn of, and believe in, new solutions.

Country by country, what were the main highlights? Did any of the countries yield surprising results?

There are a number of interesting country-specific results, although it is clear that we can’t directly compare results among countries for each question in the survey – they all have so many cultural and regulatory differences.

But if we look at Belgium and Italy, it seems that there is greater acceptance of new plastic types (and indeed greater consumption of these plastics), while in Croatia and especially Turkey, consumers are more reluctant to substitute conventional plastic packaging.

However, one specific – and surprising – finding from this survey is that a majority of respondents in Spain (62%) and Istanbul’s Kartal district (65%) have not even been offered the choice of a biodegradable plastic bag when they go shopping for groceries. This also applies to 49% of Croatians. In the case of Kartal, until this year there were not real restrictions or regulations concerning conventional bag versus biodegradable substitutes, so perhaps the figure can be explained this way. But all in all, the finding comes as a surprise. And clearly, if we want people to use these new plastic material products, it goes without saying that the products must be available on the market – and available when the consumer asks for them.

Another striking finding is that in Croatia, some 22% of respondents don’t see the need to sort household waste – because they feel their contribution has no impact on the problem in general. This is certainly something which has to be addressed.

Finally, in Belgium we learned that 43% of citizens always keep and reuse plastic bags for shopping, which is – though more progress is needed – an encouraging statistic.

Does this survey tell us anything about attitudes to single-use plastics?

The survey did focus on packaging and not single-use plastics per se, but we did gain a glimpse of consumer habits with shopping bags. For instance, whereas years ago we mainly used single-use plastic shopping bags, today we see that most European consumers bring bags from home when they go for groceries: 78% of Portuguese consumers, 72% of Belgians, 70% of Italians and 59% of Spaniards all do this. And most of the inhabitants of Kartal in Turkey do this too. In Croatia the number is a bit lower at 42%. This tells us that when we have awareness campaigns and indeed regulations in place restricting or penalising the use of single-use plastic bags, citizens tend to follow suit and act quickly! So we need these regulations and information campaigns.

And what the survey also tells us about plastics in general is that when Europeans go shopping, they encounter products with excessive plastic packaging or even products that don’t need packaging at all. For instance, in Spain, 43% of respondents often find products that don’t need packaging, and more than 50% regularly find “over-packaged” products.

What does this survey tell us about attitudes to new plastic types, such as biodegradable plastics or compostable plastics?

When consumers buy products, and they have the choice between (a) bio-based, (b) biodegradable, or (c) recycled plastics, they tend to prefer biodegradable plastics, closely followed by recycled plastics. Bio-based plastics lag some way behind.

Interestingly, there is a willingness to pay a little bit more for these new packaging options. But what this amount is varies among the countries in the survey.

How do you think the CIRC-PACK project can address some of the issues consumers have with plastics?

This project is good for changing minds; it demonstrates that sustainable plastic packaging is possible. It is possible to reach the market so that manufacturers can produce this sustainable packaging, and also to test the market. At CIRC-PACK we are testing various demonstration products (food packaging, cosmetic packaging, bags), and we are testing them from different angles: environmental, financial/economic and even from a social acceptance perspective. It can be a good way of encouraging the market to move towards an improved, more sustainable plastic packaging value chain.

Moreover, this project can inform citizens about what these improvements imply; why it is important to go for them, how we can recognise them on the market and how we behave when dealing with them during use or when sorting waste at home. Many respondents in this survey don’t have trust in manufacturers, supermarkets or the media as sources of information regarding new plastic materials, but the CIRC-PACK consortium includes representatives from every part of plastic value chain. This consortium can be considered an independent and valid source of information.

For a run-down of the survey results, readers can watch the video by OCU.

28 November 2018

Consumers Favour Biodegradable Plastic Solutions, According to Major CIRC-PACK Survey

A CIRC-PACK-commissioned survey has shed light on the habits and expectations of some 10,000 European consumers when it comes to plastics and plastic packaging – all revealed today in a special circular packaging workshop at the CONAMA environment congress in Madrid, Spain.

The citizens of Belgium, Croatia, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the Istanbul district of Kartal were all quizzed on plastic-related habits and preferences in a recent survey commissioned by CIRC-PACK and conducted by Spanish consumer organisation OCU.

Unveiled today at CONAMA 2018 in Madrid, major findings from the survey say that:

  • For day-to-day items (food, detergents, care products), consumers are less concerned by the environment than by price and quality.
  • Some 30 per cent of consumers always or almost always find packaging on products that don’t need it.
  • The level of waste separation in European homes is good – but not in Croatia and Kartal where citizens feel less well informed.
  • Products packaged in biodegradable plastic are more attractive than those in bio-based or recycled packaging.

According to the survey – conducted from November 2017 to January 2018 – the most common reasons for Europeans not sorting household waste (or not doing it better) are a lack of space at home for separate containers, or distance to waste collection points.

The survey uncovered disparities among countries’ sorting habits. In Italy, some 90 per cent of respondents are “very careful with the segregation of household plastics”, with Belgium also doing well (80 per cent of citizens). In contrast, only 50% of Croatian respondents were very careful with plastic sorting, and inhabitants of Istanbul’s Kartal district even less so (20 per cent of respondents).

When it comes to plastic packaging, Europeans still are still buying packaged products, even though consumers find that: packaging is unnecessary (for 30 per cent of respondents); plastic is difficult to compress (for 37 per cent of respondents), or; plastic is impossible to reuse (57 per cent of respondents).

But what do we think of new plastic materials – those that are bio-based or biodegradable?

Since these materials are not yet widespread in supermarkets and high street shops, it is understandable that the majority of respondents don’t consider them to be their first packaging option for daily use. Italy is an exception, where the majority of consumers do opt for biodegradable alternatives.

But given the option, respondents prefer to buy products packaged in biodegradable plastic ahead of bio-based or recycled plastics.

And among all the products which CIRC-PACK is developing, the solution with the most public acceptance is the biodegradable packaging used for coffee capsules – except in Croatia and Kartal district where this type of product is used less frequently than in the other countries surveyed.

For a run-down of the survey results, readers can watch the video by OCU.

Next week, the CIRC-PACK website will feature an in-depth interview on the survey results with OCU’s Belén Ramos.

20 November 2018

CIRC-PACK to Release Results of Consumer Survey on Plastics at CONAMA 2018

The latest results from the CIRC-PACK project will be presented next week in Madrid, Spain, at the CONAMA 2018 conference (congreso nacional del medio ambiente; national environment congress), one of Europe’s leading environment-related events.

CIRC-PACK will be showcased among a clutch of circular economy initiatives at the event, but will also be presenting the project’s latest results.

In a special workshop on circular packaging, jointly organised by OCU and project co-ordinator CIRCE, the project partners will present the initial results of the CIRC-PACK demonstration cases, in addition to a new survey data from around Europe on consumer habits and expectations with respect to plastics.

The survey results will be unveiled prior to a special focus group session with stakeholders from across the plastics value chain.

Registrations for the session, at 12h00 on Wednesday 28 November at the Palacio Municipal de Congresos in Madrid, can be made in Spanish via this form.

Stay tuned for more news on the survey and workshop - before, during and in follow-up to the conference on and via Twitter @circ_economy.

23 October 2018

“What we want is to make plastics circular,” environment chief tells World Circular Economy Forum

Some 95 per cent of the value of plastics is lost to the economy each year because Europe is not reusing or recycling enough, an international audience heard today in Japan.

Today at the World Circular Economy Forum in Japan, a global audience of experts, business leaders and policy makers heard that in the European Union (EU), 105 billion euros of value is lost each year due to a lack of plastics reuse and recycling – some 95 per cent of the value of plastics in the EU.

Daniel Calleja, director general of the European Commission’s DG Environment, told a packed session in Yokohama that plastic reuse and recycling rates in the bloc remain stubbornly low compared with other materials, but that the EU institutions continue to tackle the issue head on.

“The plastics sector in the EU is a very strategic sector,” Mr Calleja told the forum’s session on Circular Economy for Plastics.

“The sector employs 1.5 million people and has a turnover of 340 billion euros, but plastic is also at the origin of serious environmental issues,” he said, adding that in the EU and beyond, decision makers are exploring ways to make the plastic sector circular, save resources and “reduce plastic leakage into the environment”.

According to the European Commission, 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated annually in the EU, with less than 30 per cent collected adequately.

For its part, the European Commission has recently introduced a raft of proposals and concrete legislation in recent months to address the plastics challenge within and outwith the bloc.

In January 2018, the EU adopted a Plastics Strategy to ensure that by 2030, all plastic packaging put into the market is reusable or recyclable. Plastic packaging comprises the largest type of plastic waste in the EU.

Mr Calleja also told the forum that single-use plastics would be restricted where there are no alternatives, and that a “restriction dossier” was being prepared for micro-plastics that are intentionally added in products. “We are taking regulatory action at the European level,” said Mr Calleja, “but also at the level of the G7, G20 and within the United Nations to combat plastic pollution. Only international efforts will be able to deliver.”

The environmental policy chief added that innovation would be a key tool in delivering circularity for the European plastics sector – with heavy investment to follow.

“In the coming years we are spending more than 350 million euros in order to promote innovative solutions linked to plastics. We’ll be looking at design and circularity. We do not want to demonise plastics; what we want is to make plastics circular, to make sure we can recycle and reuse them.”

Mr Calleja’s comments echoed those of other international participants in today’s session, all keen to emphasise the link of smart product designs to improving circularity in the sector.

“In Germany we have good collection and sorting systems but this is not enough,” said German environment ministry speaker Regina Dube. “We should also improve packaging design to get to a circular economy.”

In the Europe, the EU’s innovation drive is notably being supported by the bloc’s research and innovation agenda, and the Horizon 2020 programme.

Multi-million euro initiatives including the CIRC-PACK and PlastiCircle projects are being driven forward to improve the circularity of plastic packaging, promote innovations in collection and sorting and boost the production of added value products from recycled plastic packaging waste.

With global plastics production set to double in the next 20 years, the need for regulation, partnerships with the private sector, and strategic investment in circular economy solutions is becoming ever more urgent.

Today's session at the World Circular Economy Forum was co-organised by the Japanese Ministry for the Environment, the Finnish innovation fund Sitra, and the European Commission.