By Carsten Gensing
The vegan boom is not coming to an end: According to the latest surveys, the number of consumers of vegan foods continues to rise sharply. The development is fueled by the Veganuary. The vegan new year challenge runs at present on full speed. One thing is certain: vegan nutrition is more sustainable than the traditional omnivorous lifestyle. But does that also apply to packaging and the consumption of single-use plastic? Our author Carsten Gensing knows how much plastic is in the Veganuary – and reveals with which measure the retail chains want to drastically reduce plastic packaging in vegan food.
There’s hardly any way to avoid Veganuary
Forgoing animal-based foods for a month – that’s what the Veganuary organization calls for every January. What was devised in 2014 at a kitchen table in the British province of Yorkshire by a teacher and her husband, a carpenter, is now a successful global campaign: accompanied by a daily newsletter, hundreds of thousands of people try their hand at plant-based nutrition for 31 days. Food manufacturers and gastronomy companies accompany the vegan New Year’s Challenge with new products and special offers. In Germany all large retail chains are involved: There is therefore hardly a way past the Veganuary in the supermarket.
Climate protection motivates people to try vegan food
In addition to animal welfare and health aspects, participants in representative surveys also cite climate and environmental protection as the main reason for doing without animal products in January. The evidence shows that factory farming is one of the biggest global drivers of emissions in food production. Breeding, feeding, transportation, slaughter, cooling and distribution consume enormous amounts of land, raw materials and energy. The calculation – apart from the ethical aspects – is simple: The effort to produce vegetable proteins immediately for human consumption is significantly lower, after all, the detour via the rearing of an animal falls away.
Vegan substitute products are packaged just like animal foods
If ecological aspects are so important, then this should also have an impact on the packaging of vegan food, right? How plastic-free are vegan foods packaged? A look at the supermarket shelves reveals disillusionment. Almost all vegan substitute products are offered in the classic three-component packaging: Tray with a solid wall, a somewhat thinner protective film, and above that a printed outer packaging sleeve made of cardboard. If you want to dispose of this mountain of waste properly, you have to separate it three ways: Cardboard to paper, the protective film must be completely off the shell and into the yellow bag, so that the quality of the recyclate does not suffer during recycling. Is there no other way?
Vegan producer defends plastic packaging
The largest German supplier of a full range of vegan products is Veganz from Berlin. The company says it tries ” to reduce plastic packaging wherever possible or to replace it with other packaging materials.” If you look at the manufacturer’s fresh produce in particular, you’ll notice: cheese, sausage and fish alternatives come in plastic packaging just like the animal originals. Veganz defends its packaging and calculates: “Especially in terms of shelf life, adequate product protection, freshness and hygiene, plastic is simply unbeatable as a packaging material.” Nevertheless, Veganz strives to make all product packaging as sustainable as possible and – where possible – to switch to advanced packaging.
Vegan Butcher Shop in Berlin Vegan Hotspot
To make a long story short: Away from the vegan hotspots, there is hardly any chance to grab meat, sausage and cheese alternatives without plastic packaging. People living in big metropolises have it better. In the seemingly elitist Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, vegan sausages, gyros and meatballs made from purely plant-based ingredients are available at the “Vetzgerei,” which offers deposit jars as packaging. In Stuttgart, ex-national keeper Timo Hildebrandt and a partner run a vegan food stand in the local market hall. Here, too, reusable packaging is used. At the “Tofurei” in Luckau (Lower Saxony, Germany), you can have your tofu cut to any size and pick it up unpackaged. As you might have already noticed: there are no mass solutions in sight.
Rewe tests vegan fresh food counters
It sounds promising what retail giant Rewe has been trying out since fall 2022: vegan fresh food counters. In around 50 stores in Germany, the plant-based alternatives made from soy or pea proteins are now available next to pork cutlets. The idea: selling them at the deli counter saves on disposable plastic. It does not work completely without plastic, but the difference in weight of the packaging alone is impressive: While the three-component packaging of “Like Meat” weighs 25 grams according to our measurement, a coated paper plus a thin paper bag is sufficient at the counter. Total weight: five grams.
Do people accept the offer?
It becomes clear right from the start of the test that the project is proving difficult. The immediate placement next to the meat counter scares off people living vegan. In addition: In many newly designed markets, the meat counter is usually no longer placed at an aisle, but set back in the store. People who don’t like meat no longer have to pass by it. Accordingly, there is a lack of spontaneous buyers. Other retailers are making the same experience. Edeka, for example, offers vegan salads next to its fish counter in the Rindermarkthalle in Hamburg-St. Pauli. However, the target group for these foods does not come by here at all. The result is disappointing: low sales. At the same time, the store in Hamburg is considered a vegan paradise and attracts many people from the scene.
Demand for vegan products continues to rise
The situation is quite different for packaged vegan alternatives. Their sales continue to balloon steeply in all chains. From 2019 to 2021, production in Germany increased by 62.2 percent (source: German Federal Institute for Agriculture and Food). According to a recent survey by Civey, one in five people make sure to eat a vegan diet at least occasionally. Vegan alternative products are thereby indispensable for more than half of the respondents and are bought regularly.
There is currently no way around single-use plastics
What to do? Since reusable solutions are difficult to implement in our current shopping world, producers continue to work on sustainable packaging. For the time being, consumers will have to buy single-use plastic packaging. Small consolation: The British research group Our World in Data just published a new study that also takes the packaging of alternative products and protein density into account when calculating emissions: Result: plant meat remains clearly superior to animal meat.
Anyway, meat alternatives should only make up a small part of the daily diet. Those who want to eat vegan, should rely primarily on fresh fruits and vegetables. However, dangers also lurk in the fruit department. What a plastic insanity from China we have discovered at EDEKA, you can read here.