Plastic-free packaging: turning the economy circular

ARTICLE

Plastic-free packaging: turning the economy circular

Rodney Reynders, Cluster Sustainability Director for the Greater Middle East and Africa at Tetra Pak explains how packaging producers and brand owners are responding to public demands for climate action

​​​​

With climate change rising up the political agenda, packaging producers and brand owners are finding their environmental imprint coming under scrutiny as never before. As packaging manufacturers, we are in a unique position in that nothing we produce is destined to be kept and treasured, rather our packaging has a short and purposeful life before being discarded by the consumer.

Unfortunately, the impact that poor waste management and collection infrastructure is having on our ecosystems is becoming clearer by the day. As the packaging producers and brand owners that put these products into the market, we need to assume responsibility for the waste we produce, which is why Tetra Pak, along with dozens of other global companies, has joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is pushing forward the concept of a circular economy.

Giving waste a value

A circular economy is designed to be restorative and regenerative, keeping materials in the value chain for as long as possible through reuse and recycling, unlike our current, linear ‘take-make-dispose’ pattern of consumption. In a circular economy, waste holds a value and generates new business and economic opportunities.

Recycling rates vary enormously across the world. The challenge always associated with recycling is making it viable: it requires a collection and sorting system that gathers commercial volumes of waste, and it requires market demand for the collected materials.

A further barrier to recycling is that, while most plastics are fairly easy to recycle, certain multi-laminate ones are not. Plastic packaging often combines multiple materials and polymer types, which cannot easily be separated. Other plastics are inherently not conducive to recycling, and the labels and glues can contaminate the waste streams. Such complexities mean that the economics of plastic recycling have struggled to compete with the low cost of mass producing virgin polymers.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, more than 80 million tonnes of plastic packaging are produced every year and less than 14 per cent is collected for recycling. About 40 per cent is sent to landfill, 14 per cent is incinerated, while 32 per cent ends up in the environment. The foundation estimates that $80-120bn-worth of plastic packaging is thrown away each year after just one use.

Driving change with legislation

In Europe, governments have used legislation to drive up recycling rates, with local authorities often responsible for waste collection. Just as critical as the government support is the large population sizes, which generate the scale of waste needed to fuel recycling businesses. Those factors have largely been absent in the Gulf region and as a result recovery rates here have traditionally been very low.

That is set to change, however, thanks to a new initiative – of which Tetra Pak is a part – launched early this year in the UAE, involving Emirates Nature–WWF, brand owners, packaging suppliers and the Ministry of Climate Change & Environment. The coalition has pledged to tackle the issue of plastic and packaging waste by giving their support to improving waste collection in the UAE.

Other members of the Coalition of Innovation in Recycling towards a Closed Loop Economy include BASF, Borouge, Majid Al Futtaim, Coca-Cola, Dow, the Gulf Petrochemicals & Chemicals Association, McDonald’s UAE, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and Unilever.

Under the initiative, a pilot project has been launched in Abu Dhabi to analyse the different waste streams being generated by households. The objective is to use this information to establish collection programmes and recycling targets that can support downstream businesses.

Sustainability targets

Brand owners and packaging producers want to see recycling work. Under increasing environmental pressure, most have now established sustainability targets. Coca-Cola, for example, has pledged to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells by 2030. But it really needs close collaboration between all stakeholders in the supply chain, from government down to the consumers for waste management and recovery to be effective.

Tetra Pak has always been committed to Sustainability and the importance of Recycling. Last year more than 46 Billion cartons were recycled globally, and we’d like to see these figures increase going forward.

Tetra Pak is also involved in another important regional initiative. Last year, we invested more than $1m in a beverage carton recycling facility in Saudi Arabia. We have partnered with Obeikan Paper Industries (OPI), which owns a paper mill in Riyadh, to facilitate the collection and recycling of the milk and juice cartons we produce. These are made of virgin pulp, which is hugely valuable to OPI.

Tetra Pak produced189 billion packages worldwide in 2018 and we have invested more than €20 million in building recycling capacity over the past decade as part of our sustainability commitments.

In some markets where the infrastructure and a recycling mindset exist, the rate is as high as 80 per cent, but in others it is very low, so we are now accelerating our efforts to invest in areas that lack recycling facilities and collection programmes.

We currently have a global recycling rate of about 25 per cent, and in Europe a rate of around 48% is being achieved.

Our efforts are aimed at supporting our Customers and their recycling targets and initiatives. We do this through Investments in building recycling capacity and supporting recycling awareness and collection programs. Supporting these initiatives will increase carton recycling rates globally.

Responsible production

Raising recycling rates is just the starting point of our climate response. To achieve a low-carbon circular economy, we need to consider the environmental impact across the entire value chain. Tetra Pak’s sustainability commitments extend beyond recycling to responsible sourcing, renewable materials and efficient production.

Our cartons are primarily made of paperboard, polyethylene and aluminium. The paperboard we use is sourced from responsibly managed Forest Stewardship Council certified forests. We operate 30 packaging converting factories across the world and by 2030 we want them all to be powered by renewable energy. We have already achieved 50 per cent of this target, through a combination of solar energy installations and carbon credit offsets. We have also put a lot of work into ensuring our customers’ filling and processing sites are water and energy efficient.

Tetra Pak is now looking at how it can include recycled content in its packaging. Food safety is our number one priority – it is the whole reason we produce packaging – so we need to find paperboard and plastic manufacturers that can guarantee the safety of their products. For example, we have been telling our plastic cap suppliers that we want them to include recycled polyethylene content if they can guarantee its safety. By 2030, Tetra Pak is aiming for all its packaging to be made fully from renewable and/or recycled content.

Responsible consumption

And this is the impact of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. By focusing attention on the concept of a circular economy, it is creating demand for sustainable packaging and this compels suppliers and plastics producers to innovate to increase recycled content and ensure all packaging is recyclable, reusable or compostable. Once demand exists for recycled content, waste suddenly assumes a value. And this is how the value chain becomes circular rather than linear.

The European Union also continues to drive us all forward in our sustainability journeys. To comply with its forthcoming ban on plastic straws, Tetra Pak is developing a paper straw substitute. We are also working on a tethered cap solution to comply with legislation that will come into force in 2024. Our combined investment to meet these two directives is €80 million.

The European ruling that all caps must be attached to the packs is aimed at reducing littering, so that less packaging ends up in the environment and in the stomachs of birds and marine life.

Government and industry are coming together to address waste pollution, to make packaging more sustainable and to provide infrastructure for recycling, but we also need consumers to play their part. They must dispose of packaging responsibly and take a stand when it is non-recyclable or difficult to recycle. Only by working together can we truly make a difference.

Topics

  • Food & Beverage
  • Green Economy
  • Sustainability