“There are no quick solutions to achieving a circular economy”

An interview with Prof. Dr. Christa Liedtke and Dr. Stephan Ramesohl from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy

Responsibility Responsibility Sep 27, 2019

Prof. Dr. Christa Liedtke and Dr. Stephan Ramesohl from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy talk about how consumers can be persuaded by labels to make more sustainable decisions, why a radical ban on plastic bags is not a solution and why Germany should be a pioneer in the pursuit of a global circular economy.

Prof. Dr. Liedtke: Is nudging – persuasion by suggestion, so to speak – more likely to induce a sustainable consumer decision than outright prohibition?

Liedtke: To date, consumer policy in Germany has indeed relied primarily on soft instruments and then only to obviate risk, for example through the imposition of limit values. This includes nudging, which in the broader sense can also include the use of labels such as – in Germany – the Blue Angel or the energy efficiency mark. The key question is: To what extent the nudge influences consumer behavior. Our observations indicate that, in the case of products of true preference, such devices usually fail to initiate tangible change. The underlying framework is just as important. There is a report by the Federal Environment Agency from 2017 which gives a clear recommendation to focus nudging at the socio-political level and to define certain basic principles as to when such devices may be used. A high level of transparency, i.e. in the form of a social debate about the respective nudge, is, for example, an essential prerequisite. It must also be about empowering people and not restricting their choices. What is meant by application at the socio-political level? Nudging should be carried out by government in close cooperation with various stakeholders, including companies and municipal authorities. It is not something that should be left solely to trade and industry. This is simply because nudging can intervene deeply in people’s behavior, and its misuse must be prevented at all costs.

Prof. Dr. Christa Liedtke, Director of the Sustainable Production and Consumption Department at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate

Prof. Dr. Christa Liedtke, Director of the Sustainable Production and Consumption Department at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and Professor of Sustainability in Design at the Folkwang University of the Arts

Ramesohl: In addition to the questions of what behavior I would like to see achieved, with what instruments and with what rules in place, I also find it quite crucial to define the level at which these influences are supposed to have an impact. Of course, most of the problems are on a global scale with global interactions. Nevertheless, we should not make the mistake of doing only that which can be specifically implemented globally. I am convinced that we can unleash major momentum for European initiatives from within Germany.

Looking at the debate surrounding traffic light labeling on food: Do you think there could be something similar in relation to recycling to make it as easy as possible for the consumer to evaluate a product?

Liedtke: I can indeed well imagine that, given that this would be comparatively simple to implement in the area of recycling plastics. We are currently discussing at the political level how we can design such a comprehensive recycling label. In my view, simplification is a key success factor – on several levels: Needless to say, the information must be easy to understand. Taking it one step further, however, it must also be made convenient for people to act in a sustainable manner. Meaning: At the moment it is all too easy for consumers to grab a plastic bag. So the alternative has to be just as simple. This is a question of design. Until now, all thoughts have been focused on process technology.

Ramesohl: Generally speaking, change only happens where a willingness to act is coupled with the ability to act. The willingness to act is stimulated by, in particular, public debate. It is very fragile and will inevitably dissipate rapidly if there is any suspicion of abuse. One example is the meat industry, which does not enjoy a high level of consumer confidence with regard to its own labels. The importance of the second step has already been stressed: Let's say I'm motivated to make the "right" choice at the supermarket. For this I need a simple means of distinguishing A from B – for example through the provision of a label. For this to work, both the label and the underlying processes must be credible.

Dr. Stephan Ramesohl, Co-Head of the Digital Transformation Research Unit of the Circular Economy Department

Dr. Stephan Ramesohl, Co-Head of the Digital Transformation Research Unit of the Circular Economy Department, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy

What do you think of the currently widely discussed ban on plastic bags? And, taking that question one stage further: How can manufacturers, suppliers and retailers work together to avoid slipping into simplistic black-and-white arguments in the public discussion about plastics?

Ramesohl: Of course, we always get into difficulties when we confront a relative problem with a very radical solution such as a ban. Prohibition is actually the last course of action that we should ever consider. And if a ban is applied, how do we define its scope? For example: to avert serious damage or injury, or for health protection reasons? Ultimately we have to ask: Does the plastic bag fall into these categories? We have a credibility problem on our hands if we apply an extreme measure (namely a strict ban) to a relatively small problem. I am convinced that we all – government, trade, industry and society at large – need to learn that there are no quick fixes and that we are all having to feel our way forward. We need to take many different, perhaps even smaller, steps in the right direction in order to move closer to establishing a functioning circular economy. Of course, this is much more laborious in both communication and implementation. Returning to specific examples: I find it interesting to observe, for example, that the organic label has now achieved a certain robustness in relation to food. Isolated food scandals have not damaged confidence in the label itself. So that means that the system does not need to be perfect, just generally dependable and adaptive. Radical positions such as the ban on plastic bags are also particularly susceptible to abuse, circumvention, consternation and disappointment on the part of consumers. In my opinion, this maelstrom of feelings of focused attention on a problem, euphoria about a supposedly simple and quick solution, and subsequent frustration, should definitely be avoided.

Is that also where the plastics debate is heading?

Ramesohl: As long as we have a non-degrading substance affecting nature, this debate will remain hot. Reactions such as that of a ban on plastic bags will, however, always be prone to such a pattern. Just to make it clear: If we look at the ecobalance of any contribution that a plastic bag ban might make to climate protection policy in Germany, we quickly find ourselves in decimal place territory. Of course, the population also recognizes this and, triggered by an isolated ban without any real relevance, may turn their back on the truly important issue of nature and climate protection.

What role can the packaging industry play in developing sustainable solutions?

Liedtke: We certainly need more innovation. If, in particular, we limit the choice of materials, the ultimate effect will merely be to strengthen the existing system, the existing production-consumption structures. That is a crucial difference in the approach being adopted: We are not only acting within the existing landscape, but are also working on transforming the packaging system – i.e. making it more sustainable.

Ramesohl: Absolutely correct – and right across the entire value chain. From my point of view, this is one of the main problems of the current situation: that everyone only thinks in terms of their factory gate, their store entrance. The scope of responsibility extends far beyond those limits. Whenever a customer makes a purchase and thus becomes the owner of the plastic bag, he or she also becomes part of an integrated system. So solutions have to be devised from a holistic standpoint. All the players – from the politicians who set the legal framework, the manufacturers, the wholesalers and the retailers right through to the consumers – bear a common responsibility.

We are all agreed that plastics should be prevented from polluting the environment ...

Liedtke: That is correct, and I should add one more point: Consumer behavior is currently under critical scrutiny. I feel that we in Germany have an effective system in which a relatively large percentage of waste is recycled. Naturally, there is still room for improvement on the sorting side. But: Globally, we face the challenge of littered beaches and oceans and a local recycling economy at pollution hotspots that is often neither humane nor ecological. Here Germany has the task of showing how recycling can work: with an innovative packaging system, modern facilities and a resource-saving cycle from manufacturer via the trade to the consumer and then back again. Systems that prevent waste from being shifted from us to other countries, create high-quality cycles for the various materials and that can also function very well elsewhere – socially, ecologically and economically. It is important to increase the proportion and the components of products circulating in the cycle. Recycling metrics as they stand do not yet provide any cogent information in this regard.