Germany sometimes appears to be a role model in Europe when it comes to sustainable living and recycling. The 15-year old German Pfand system (a bottle and can return scheme) has been hailed as an example in the debate on solutions to cut down on single-use-plastics.
But, while Germany might be good at recycling, it’s also a world champion at producing plastic waste, making it just as important there as here, to push for changes and demand less packaging.
We met with Julia Bayer from Cologne who made a decision 4 years ago to live without it plastic. Julia believes in the power of the consumer when it comes to finding solutions to the problem. In our interview with her she tells us what it takes to live without plastic.
When was the last time you used a plastic-straw?
To be honest, a couple of days ago. I was too slow to tell the waiter I’d like my ice tea without a straw. And out of experience I know, once it’s been in your drink, they won’t use it again, even if you haven’t touched it yet.
What made you decide to go plastic-free? How did this all start?
It started with a New Year’s resolution. I was sitting together with friends discussing what we could realistically stop doing in 2014. Doing more sports or eating healthily is something I try to continue anyway, so we discussed doing something unusual and living in a more environmentally conscious way.
A month earlier, a friend had told me about a man from New York who had been living without packaging for many years which really struck me, as I always think of the US as the place where you get everything super-sized. So together we made a bet that we could live without any packaging for a whole week.
What is your basic toolkit for becoming plastic-free?
Definitely, a reusable coffee cup, three tote bags for bread, fruits and other stuff from the supermarket and two glass boxes for cheese.
Did it make a difference to start this together in a team?
Four of us friends started the project together. The difference is you feel stronger together and you suffer together. We did our very first plastic-free shopping together. It makes it easier to make the first ask and to move on quickly when people reject your request not to use any packaging. For example, vendors would often decline to give you cheese without packaging for hygienic reasons.
If you are on your own, you might be inclined to give in after the first time that happens, but we encouraged each other to just try somewhere else. And when it works out you also get to celebrate your first packaging-free grocery day with each other, rather than just patting your own back!
It sounds like it takes a lot of willpower to start the conversation with people in shops. What was it like in the beginning?
It was actually very exciting. We didn’t know how people would react. But to be honest, most people we talked to loved it and were really open. One side-effect: I never talked so much to shop-owners or with other clients doing my groceries before. Shopping became more of a social experience. And after the first day, it became more fun because we knew we were not alone.
What is the range of reactions you get?
We always got the most negative reactions in big supermarket chains where vendors declined our requests without any discussion. One person even said she might lose her job if she gives us the cheese without packaging. I now always buy cheese and meat at a fresh organic market where they are more flexible.
What really gets me excited is when shop owners, or other clients who overhear the conversation, tell me how much they love what I do and say ‘Next time, I will also bring my own box to get my cheese package-free.’ It very quickly becomes something that you don’t just do for yourself but that also encourages other people around you. That’s something I didn’t even think of when I started and something that keeps you going as well.
So in your friend circle, is everyone is now following your example?
People who heard and saw me living like this adopted some of it. Over the last years, the awareness for the issue of plastic-waste has increased in general, but I like to think that I played a role in raising awareness within my inner circle of family and friends but also at work. Some people bought a coffee cup, some proudly tell me how small their rubbish bag was this week and when people give me presents now, they don’t wrap them in paper anymore. Some friends even feel a little ashamed when I see them with their plastic cup.
But the best thing was when a friend of mine who is a teacher got inspired to do the plastic-free week project with her class and it worked.
What is the most common excuse you hear from people not to try?
“Oh, I forgot my tote bag“ “I forgot my cup“ “I don´t have time to go to the market“ are the most common excuses.
Do you think the scale of the problem is bigger or smaller in Germany than in other countries?
I think the problem is everywhere. We produce and buy too many things we don’t need. We are living in a globalized world where all our actions in positive and negative ways affect us all.
What do you think is the role of communities in this issue? Do you think people have to push for change locally?
Yes, when you see more and more people requesting less plastic you will then get products without plastic packaging more easily in your neighbourhood. There are already three zero-waste supermarkets in Cologne. This is only happening because people want it. Tante Olga, one of these supermarkets in Cologne is also trying to get people more actively involved on the community-level. They run a zero-waste Cologne campaign and promote ideas like zero-waste picnics or plogging, the idea from Sweden where you pick up litter whilst jogging in a group. It’s great to see these things happening more and more.
Thanks for inspiring others to ditch plastic and best of luck Julia!
Explore some ideas for plastic-free communities
Here are some ideas to start in your community that help to raise awareness but also very practically help reduce plastic waste.
The Last Plastic Straw
The Last Plastic Straw movement seeks to activate citizens through grassroots campaigning to encourage individuals to push for change in restaurant protocol and practices in their local communities. As a starter you’ll receive materials that you can distribute to cafés who join the campaign to say no to plastic straws.
Refill prevents plastic bottle waste by making free tap water easily accessible. As a Refill champion you approach business owners in your community and bring them on board to offer free refills of reusable water bottles. You’ll get stickers for free that you can give to shop owners that they can use as a Refill sign on their shop window.
Do you like the idea of plogging? Running together whilst picking up litter. Let us know if you’d like to see this happening in your community in Ireland and join our poll over on Facebook.