Innovation: the key to unlocking the potential of sustainable plastic packaging in the food and drinks sector

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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PET depolymerization reactor - Credit photo Carbios #GrowingforGood

With trilogue negotiations on the European Climate Law currently underway, the EU is decisively forging its path towards 2050 climate neutrality, setting an example on the global arena. To reach this goal, the European Parliament has called earlier this week for binding 2030 targets to reduce the EU’s overall material and consumption footprint.

With increasing EU climate and environment ambitions, it is crucial for all actors – businesses, consumers, and governments – to jointly go the extra mile. At Suntory Beverage and Food Europe (SBFE), we care deeply about our planet; we support the EU’s climate neutrality ambition, and we are fully committed to playing our part. Focused on cutting down our total value chain emissions across the region, we are working to deliver against our Science Based carbon emissions reduction targets by 2030 or sooner.

As a soft-drinks company that uses a variety of beverage containers, we are very mindful of the impact plastic waste has on our planet. While society has often used plastic poorly, the consumer benefits of plastic beverage containers are undeniable – they are safe, durable, versatile, and lightweight. Moreover, the lifetime carbon emissions associated with recycled plastic beverage bottles are lower than those for glass or metal cans. We are, therefore, confident that a transition to a world where plastic is used responsibly is possible.

At SBFE, we are aiming to reach 100% sustainable plastic bottles by 2030, switching to recycled and bio-based materials, fully moving away from fossil fuels-based virgin plastic. We will also ensure that packaging is 100% recyclable and designed for circularity by 2025 to enable bottle-to-bottle recycling. This includes using a minimum of 50% recycled plastic across our whole portfolio of bottles by 2025, resulting in less plastic being manufactured.

To reach these targets, we are constantly innovating. In November last year, we launched our new Ribena bottle across the UK and Ireland. Made from 100% recycled material since 2007, the new design removes the plastic wrapping on the bottle’s exterior, eliminating 202 tonnes of plastic annually and creating a bottle that is fully recyclable and optimised for circularity. This year, our May Tea brand sold in France and Benelux will also move into 100% recycled plastic.

In this context, we support the Commission’s plans to strengthen essential requirements – for example by introducing recycled content mandates – through the upcoming revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. To achieve these results, it is vital that Member States put in place well-functioning deposit return schemes (DRS) such as Germany, or effective and proven extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes such as Belgium, and that an EU-wide harmonised model for waste collection is established. Indeed, Member States should invest more in waste collection, treatment, and processing facilities, paired with incentives for consumers and businesses to increase and optimise recycling and collection.

Aside from switching to recycled plastic, we are also exploring alternative sources of materials, such as plant-based plastic but also plastic-free sports drinks and gels encased in an edible seaweed outer layer. We, therefore, call on policymakers to offer recognition to alternative materials including plant-based packaging, also in light of the upcoming Commission initiative on compostable, bio-based and bio-degradable plastics, as our sector needs certainty to be able to invest in alternatives.

Citizens have an important role to play in reducing waste as well, and we are investing in consumer-focused recycling advertising campaigns to encourage better behaviours. Furthermore, we believe that before introducing solutions that might prove counterproductive, such as imposing plastic packaging reduction targets, EU and national policymakers should support a smooth implementation of the Single Use Plastics Directive. We are indeed aligned with recent public statements by a Commission official that setting reduction targets specific for plastic packaging might incentivize operators to move to other packaging materials which have their own environmental footprint issues, such as glass, aluminium or paper.

Finally, we welcome the European Parliament’s calls for the development of environmentally friendly enhanced recycling technologies, as the chemical and enhanced recycling industry has a key role to play in supporting the food and drinks sector achieve its sustainability goals. In the true spirit of innovation, we have partnered with the French company Carbios, which developed a novel enzyme that can biologically break down all PET plastic waste, followed by an extremely efficient recycling into new bottles. Moreover, Suntory is part of a consortium in Japan that is developing a new advanced chemical recycling technology called Anellotech’s Plas-TCat, which will break down all plastics. These represent key steps towards a world where making new plastic will not be necessary and a truly circular economy will be enabled.

Innovation is key for unlocking the potential of sustainable plastic packaging in the food and drinks sector. We therefore call on the EU institutions and Member States to support our industry by creating a suitable legislative and regulatory framework that would allow us to continue innovating. At SBFE, we are committed to playing our part. We believe it is our responsibility to engage in sustainable business practices and reduce our environmental footprint, as well as source our water and ingredients from sustainable sources, restore natural water sources, and protect wildlife and natural habitats. This represents our ‘Growing for Good’ vision.

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