Why beverage cartons are critical to achieving a climate neutral EU and the necessary frameworks to get us there

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

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The beginning of 2022 marks three and a half years since the current Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) was adopted. As we head towards a new proposal – on the horizon for mid-2022– ACE, the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment, takes this opportunity to reflect on the role of packaging and beverage cartons specifically in achieving the objectives set out by the European Commission, looking back at challenges and forward to opportunities to come.

Sustainable packaging makes a strong contribution to mitigating climate change and helping the EU achieve ambitious goals while keeping us all safe. Looking to the future, the industry’s vision is to deliver the most sustainable packaging solution for a resilient food supply system which is renewable, climate positive and circular, while not compromising on health and safety for consumers. However, when it comes to setting the legislative framework in place to make this a reality, there is not a one size fits all approach.  All uses, attributes and benefits of beverage cartons must be considered when engaging in dialogue with stakeholders. Although the current PPWD goes some way to addressing these, there is still room for improvement and a necessity for the PPWD to be outcome based, setting objectives which are material and technology neutral, leaving sufficient time and providing enough predictability and clarity for industry to innovate and adapt to achieve these objectives. Investments made by industry are long-term decisions and predictability is key to ensure industry can be fully operational in support of the transition to a low carbon circular economy.

A vital role in a sustainable and resilient EU food system

As a key part of our daily life, beverage cartons offer a variety of essential functionalities while protecting the product inside. This includes reducing food waste, ensuring accessibility and availability of food supplies. Packaging that is low-carbon, safe and circular, like beverage cartons, is one of the central tools available to support a sustainable and resilient EU food system. Our industry has a critical role to ensuring that packaging is optimized to contribute to a low carbon economy, for example, by enabling products with a long shelf life to be kept without the need for preservatives and no need for refrigeration, therefore contributing to lower emissions. Moving forwards there is an urgent need to recognize these benefits in a legislative framework and to actively promote the use of low-carbon packaging materials.

Recyclable and recycled on scale: a driver Europe’s climate neutrality

Perhaps not surprising, but the substitution of high carbon materials with low carbon materials is critical in the drive for Europe’s climate neutrality. When compared to other packaging in their core categories of milk and juice, beverage cartons have the lowest carbon footprint. In fact, on average beverage cartons yield significantly better results than PET bottles and single-use glass bottles when it comes to global warming potential.[1] Similarly, on climate impact, beverage cartons score better than or equal to reusable packaging systems as they are recyclable, recycled at scale and made from responsibly sourced low-carbon materials being made predominantly (75% on average) from paperboard.

LCA studies1 show that in many instances reusable packaging systems in fact have a higher carbon footprint than beverage cartons due to high transport emissions, increased breakages, and complex recycling mechanisms. However, both do have a role to play in a climate neutral Europe and should be considered in all upcoming legislative frameworks, applied as and when they provide the most benefit. But in most instances, low carbon packaging solution, such as beverage cartons come out on top1.

Beverage cartons are recyclable and recycled at scale across the EU. In 2019, the rate for beverage carton recycling in Europe (EU28) was 51%.[2] Our commitment by 2030 is to ensure 90% of all beverage cartons are collected for recycling and 70% of all beverage cartons are recycled. For this, robust recycling system to continue effective collection and sorting must be in place, driven by innovative solutions to increase recycling and an EU wide legislative framework that fosters these advancements. We call on the EU to adopt a mandatory beverage carton collection target and ensure harmonized implementation of mandatory separate collection of all packaging to ensure a more predictable and higher quality waste stream.  The entire industry, value chain and policy makers must come together to ensure the right framework conditions are in place – collaboration and vision are key.

Developing a clear, evidence based and harmonized framework for Europe

Current legislation, such as the PPWD, is heading in the right direction in enabling beverage cartons to play a part in tomorrow’s packaging landscape. However, it takes time to strike the right balance when implementing regulations to ensure that the most sustainable solutions can enter the market. As such, all scientific, environmental, health and economic impacts and data throughout the whole life cycle should be accounted for when deciding on what product to use, and furthermore when considering regulation around packaging solutions. Sufficient time should be taken to reflect on policies and to develop a strong evidence-based and harmonized framework. Diverging national measures, for example around collection of waste, will only serve to undermine industry’s capabilities in providing innovation and fit for purpose products across the EU.

A mutual vision for the future

ACE is proud to be in the driving seat of a packaging sector for tomorrow and in our Roadmap to 2030 and Beyond, the industry has set out very ambitious goals to help us achieve our vision – for example, producing beverage cartons only from renewable materials, achieving a 90% collection rate of beverage cartons for recycling and delivering the lowest carbon packaging – however these can only be achieved if these frameworks are established.

The PPWD goes a long way to helping achieve this vision but it isn’t complete (see our previous article).  Additionally, to ensure ambitious objectives are met we believe all packaging should use sustainably sourced raw materials, demonstrate low carbon benefits and be recyclable and/or reusable depending on what it is used for.  We believe that the best results will come from collaborating on developing the best legislative framework, clear targets, the most innovative recycling and packaging solutions and to enhance the sustainability of existing beverage cartons. Furthermore, legislation must be mutually supportive – for example, climate mitigation and circularity objectives cannot be seen in isolation. Encouragingly, we believe the revision of the PPWD is the right place to start to achieve these objectives.

[1] “Supporting evidence- environmental performance of beverage cartons” – Circular Analytics, December 2020

[2] Based on the then calculation method

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