String bags and the refusal of diapers to solve the global problem of plastic waste?

Eco-activists tried to ask awkward questions to businesses and government at Zero Waste: Between Ecology and Food Safety round table discussion

String bags and the refusal of diapers to solve the global problem of plastic waste?
Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov

Representatives of businesses, government and active public have discussed the problem of plastic packaging and waste minimization at the round table discussion Zero Waste: Between Ecology and Food Safety organized by Realnoe Vremya. Eco-activists sternly asked what prevents businesses from selling milk in glass bottles? In response, businesses were interested in who would bear the costs of switching to eco-friendly packaging and restructuring of all business processes. The topic is complex and difficult, but one thing is clear: even the universal transition to string bags and perfectly constructed waste sorting scheme will not solve the problem if the state does not stimulate the environmentally friendly lifestyle.

Who is going to pay for eco utopia

The conversation was divided into two parts. In the first one, manufacturers and retailers of food products discussed the problems that prevent the mass transition to environmentally friendly packaging and waste minimization. In fact, it turns out that such transition can return the country to the end of the Soviet era when there were no complex multi-level packaging, the shelf life of dairy products was a few days, but the system of recycled packaging worked, and most household wastes were biodegradable.

The modern way of life has brought great amenities along with the huge problem: we produce a huge mass of non-biodegradable waste, most of which is the packaging of products. First Deputy Minister of Construction of Tatarstan Aleksey Frolov said that today only 10% of them are processed. The republic is currently developing the project of three territorial clusters, where waste processing sites are going to be organized.

Aleksey Frolov said that today only 10% of waste is recycled

Maria Yashenkova, the director of Bright Consulting agency, drew attention to that the transition to eco-friendly management in the Russian realities will rest on the need to restructure all business processes, starting with logistics and ending with the change of public consciousness. We have switched from glass bottles and paper wrappers on tetra pak and vacuum in foil for a reason: it is more convenient and cheaper.

“Awkward questions” and economic answers

Ecoactivists present at the meeting — Renata Nasybullina, the founder of the community of EcoLogichno Kazan, and eco blogger Kira Kamalova — repeatedly asked the attendees questions about what prevents businesses from taking the initiative to go to the government, “to make everyone comfortable” because buyers are willing to buy products in the eco package.

Alena Beloglazova, the owner of a farm, and Alisa Sitdikova, the director for marketing at Essen retail chain, and Maria Yashenkova and other participants explained that “so that everyone was comfortable” yet cannot be made for objective economic reasons. It will cost too expensive to minimize packaging waste and to switch to recycled packaging, and no one has yet been found who would be ready to pay for it: neither business, nor the state, nor the end user has yet agreed to this.

Ecoactivists present at the meeting — Renata Nasybullina, the founder of the community of EcoLogichno Kazan, and eco blogger Kira Kamalova — repeatedly asked the attendees questions about what prevents businesses from taking the initiative to go to the government, “to make everyone comfortable”

The activists asked to give them the right to choose. Alena Beloglazova answered them that the requirement is reasonable, but it will cost too much — for example, for her as a manufacturer, there will be no preferences from the state, and she will suffer serious losses on this.

It is in this vein that the most part of the conversation went. All “awkward” questions of the eco activists (why doesn’t Essen sell milk in non-packaged form? Why is it impossible to legislatively switch to returnables? Why can small farms produce bread without plastic packaging, but large ones cannot? Was the purchasing power of citizens higher under the Soviet Union than it is now?) broke against elementary logic (economics, logistics, social problems).

One of the most absurd moments, perhaps, was a “tricky” question of Renata Nasybullina addressed to Alena Beloglazova, who spoke about the difficulties of logistics and storing food in glass containers. Renata Aydarovna angrily asked why the producers of tomato paste and canned vegetables can afford glass jars, but Alena with her dairy products — no. Apparently, the eco-activist did not take into account the fact that in the case of canned food, the manufacturer can afford to wait for weeks for a suitable truck to take a large batch for shipment, but in the case of sour cream and milk — no.

Maria Yashenkova argues that the experience of studying international business processes says only one thing: we cannot give up plastic

String bag and reusable diaper — a dead-end path of development

Nasybullina and Kamalova, in their own words, wear eco-bags with reusable water bottles, do not eat dairy products because they cannot find them in the glass. They were delighted to talk about their like-minded person — a young mother, who makes cottage cheese from village milk herself and does not use disposable diapers. They sort the waste, of course. Renata Aydarovna said: “We are the same people as everyone else, just more responsible.”

Of course, few are ready to return to the times without diapers and give up milk just because it is difficult to find not in plastic containers — except for the most responsible. everyone decides for themselves if there is any sense in such “responsibility”.

Maria Yashenkova argues that the experience of studying international business processes says about only one thing: we cannot give up plastic. Even if all the eco-activists in the world give up any plastic and move to subsistence farming, it will be a drop in the ocean, compared to a huge machine consisting of production, retailing and recycling systems. Humanity cannot go back a hundred years ago, so the main way to handle waste should be their competent sorting and safe, complete processing. That is, it is necessary to develop, first of all, chemistry and technology, and not to force businesses to forcibly switch to returnables (which will make products significantly more expensive for the end user).

“75 per cent of our customers are ready not to throw away furniture and use trade-in. We use it,” says Lilia Shakirova

Changing consciousness: IKEA case

A breath of clean air was the speech of Lilia Shakirova, the coordinator for sustainable development at IKEA. The Swedish company professes the most careful approach to nature and introduces environmental consciousness to its employees (although Lily did not tell whether any work is carried out among them to promote the refusal of diapers).

IKEA case is very difficult to repeat because there is a full cycle of production, sales, recycling — and again production. Lilia says:

“The culture of responsible consumption in a very harsh environment has been developed in the business processes of IKEA. Opinion polls show that 92 per cent of Russians are ready to sort in the presence of infrastructure, 75 per cent of our customers are ready not to throw away furniture, and use trade-in (to hand over an old thing and get a discount on a similar new one — editor’s note). We use it. IKEA has both distribution and production of goods, so we can move from recycling to a closed-cycle economy — when we produce our goods from our waste, 10 per cent of our range is a closed-cycle range. We even recycle PET plastic into a filler for textile pillows.”

Also, the company “educates” its employees. According to recent data, half of ‘IKEA consumers’ of Russia sort waste at home. However, for this purpose they are provided with all infrastructure opportunities: in IKEA in Kazan, there are three sorting stations where everyone can bring waste paper, plastic, bottles, glass, batteries, bulbs, textiles.

Bodrunov considers the lack of state incentives the key reason that separate collection of waste still doesn’t lead to large-scale processing

“We are not interested to process something at our own expense”

Ecologist Valery Bodrunov, who represents the west-Tatarstan cluster of the newly formed regional operator for waste management, said that the theme of Zero Waste itself little relates to his department because its mission is to recycle already formed waste and to reuse it. He complained that the separate collection in Kazan does not work quite as we would like it to:

“Right in front of my eyes, names are disappearing from the list of the raw items in Clean Environment points. Now they accept only cardboard, but in the beginning, there were low-density polyethylene, tetra pak, corrugated paper, and God knows what else.”

Bodrunov considers the lack of state incentives the main reason that separate waste collection is not yet leading to its large-scale processing. On the one hand, it is necessary to work on the involvement of the maximum amount of secondary raw materials in circulation. On the other hand, recycling is also a business:

“We can endlessly say that any composite packaging can be involved in the secondary turnover, starting from tetra pak and ending with the most complex batteries and accumulators, but ultimately all this falls on the shoulders of the consumer. As a commercial company, we should, first of all, work for profit, and we are not interested in processing anything at our own expense.”

Therefore, the ecologist states that you can walk as much as you want with string bags and engage in agitation — Zero Waste is still only at the level of philosophy, it is important to develop an adequate and high-tech system of processing produced waste.

Renata Nasybullina raised a very important issue: public awareness

Knowledge is power: what eco-activists are right about

Renata Nasybullina raised a very important issue: public awareness. You can leave behind the scenes the cooking of cottage cheese at home and the rejection of modern means of care for babies, but it is useful to know what we use in everyday life and how we can help the environment.

Maria Yashenkova agrees with her:

“I would agree with the importance of propaganda. This is largely a matter of consumer education. People are intimidated today. The topic of food safety is covered in a very strange way: you might think that you cannot eat anything. Cereals — carbohydrates, meat — saline, bread — gluten, milk — lactose. It is necessary to adequately inform the population about all issues of quality and usefulness of products, including packaging, and properties of products in different packaging. It is very important not to intimidate them with irrational fears, but on the contrary, to give them the most adequate information, including about the packaging. If they want to buy eco-friendly — it is necessary to give them this opportunity.”

The big problem is in waste sorting: when the current system was introduced in Kazan, the public was practically not consulted. And the system that exists as a result is not clear to everyone. Renata Nasybullina also spoke about that not very logical icons on containers and the opaqueness of the waste sorting system causes complaints from concerned citizens. They are, it turns out, not dozens, but thousands: over the past year and a half, mobile and stationary sorting points in Mega shopping mall were visited by 20,000 people, 33 tonnes of recyclable materials were collected. We need a dialogue, a developed information system and a response to feedback from citizens on the part of the relevant authorities and companies.

By Lyudmila Gubaeva. Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov