Beverage cartons will only use recycled or renewable materials by 2030, industry says

The beverage carton industry aims to have products made from 100% renewable and recycled material by 2030, but there are still barriers to overcome [mymelody / Shutterstock]

Beverage carton producers have pledged to make cartons from 100% renewable and recycled material and cut down on their plastic consumption by 2030 to increase their sustainability and help meet global climate goals.

The pledges are part of the industry group Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment’s roadmap to 2030.

The plan includes reaching a 70% recycling rate and a 90% collection rate by the end of the decade, as well as improving product design to increase circularity and decarbonising the value chain in line with the goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

“We strongly believe that packaging can and should actually contribute to mitigating the two biggest challenges nowadays in our view, which are climate change but also food safety and health and safety,” Annick Carpentier, director general at the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment told EURACTIV.

The industry is already beginning to walk the talk, Carpentier added, and the European Commission now needs to create an environment that drives innovation, but also allows time for this to take place, in its revision of circular economy legislation early next year.

Sustainably sourced materials

One law that will be revised next year is the packaging and packaging waste directive. This should bring it in line with the EU executive’s goal for all packaging on the EU market to be reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030.

But the Commission is only half addressing the problem, according to Carpentier. Alongside the recyclability and reusability of end products, she is calling for a focus on the sourcing of materials.

“The European Commission says that, by 2030, all packaging should be either recyclable or reusable. We believe that this is not complete, in a way. We believe that packaging, by 2030, should be sustainably sourced, low carbon, and recyclable and/or reusable,” she explained.

“The sourcing of packaging material has an impact on climate change, but also has an impact overall on the sustainability of the packaging,” she added.

Zero Waste Europe, an environmental campaign group, supports move by the industry to improve sustainability but it also insists on reducing the amount of raw materials used in the manufacturing process.

“We agree that all packaging, all products in fact, should use sustainably sourced materials, but it’s also crucial to decrease the use of raw materials and resources in the first place,” said Dorota Napierska, policy officer on Toxic-Free Consumption and Production at Zero Waste Europe.

That is a challenge for the beverage carton industry, which relies on virgin fibres for its products thanks to their composition and strict laws about food contact materials.

Napierska is also critical of the industry’s roadmap, saying it does not provide much information on how its goals will be achieved.

“Some of those promises sound challenging in terms of delivery. For example, the industry promises to use more fibre and less plastic. That automatically puts more pressure on virgin fibre resourcing; on the other hand, the industry also promises to enhance biodiversity and increase forest growth. Those two commitments sound somewhat contradictory,” she told EURACTIV.

According to Carpentier, the industry is strong focused on sustainability and biodiversity protection. Since 2015, all the fibres used in beverage cartons have come from sustainably managed and certified forests, she said.

This means no illegal logging and respect for forest growth while allowing economic and recreational activities, she told EURACTIV.

Overcoming challenges in recycling

One of the aims of the beverage carton industry – and something that will be emphasised in the European Commission’s upcoming packaging law – is the need to design products in line with circular economy principles.

In 2019, beverage cartons had a recycling rate of 51%, according to the industry, but this is likely to drop as a new EU methodology is rolled out to measure recycling rates with more accuracy. According to Zero Waste Europe, the actual recycling rates were in fact lower than this.

Cartons are mostly made up of wood fibres on the outside, but the inside layers also contain plastics and aluminium to ensure safety and longer preservation of beverages.

These are bonded together, making them difficult to separate for recycling and processing. In Europe, however, the industry is beginning to invest in ways to recycle the aluminium and plastic from cartons.

Cutting down on virgin plastics is also tricky because the market for recycled plastic is simply not developed enough, meaning there is not enough supply and that prices are uncompetitive compared to virgin material, according to Carpentier.

The EU executive needs to address this by introducing recycled content targets for plastics in the upcoming revision of the packaging and packaging waste directive, she added.

However, she highlighted that recycled content is not needed across the whole packaging sector.

“The mandatory recycled content for all materials is not needed. Let me take the example of fibres where on average about 80% of packaging material made of fibres are recycled today and those recycled fibres find their way into new products. It’s there, it’s working, the recycling value chain is functioning,” she explained.

EU aims to tackle waste packaging with new legislation

Europe aims to cut down on waste as quickly as possible in order to halt the overconsumption that is damaging the planet and adding to climate change. But despite previous attempts, waste packaging is still on the rise in Europe.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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