As plastic bottles continue to come under fire, an increasing number of beverage brands champion cartons as a more sustainable format, mainly because they draw primarily on renewable resources and claim to have a favorable LCA rating compared to other formats. But only half of cartons used in the EU are currently recycled - and even less in the US - requiring attention on how to improve recycling rates.
The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) – whose industry members include beverage carton giants Tetra Pak, SIG Combibloc and Elopak alongside paperboard manufacturers Stora Enso and Imatra – is made up of companies that develop, manufacture and market cartons as a ‘safe, circular and sustainable packaging solution with low carbon benefits’.
According to 2019 figures, 51% of beverage cartons in the EU are recycled. This might not seem particularly high, but in the US the Carton Council puts recycling rates for F&B cartons in the US as 20% (2020) and 56% in Canada (2021).
By 2030, the ACE wants to see Europe’s recycling rate raised to 70% of all beverage cartons recycled and 90% of all beverage cartons collected for recycling (the US Carton Council is targeting 25% recycling rate by 2025).
And it’s this collection target that’s all-important, says the association. Collection is the ‘pre-condition’ to recycling – requiring consumers to place the carton in the appropriate stream and for this to be taken through to a recycling facility - although collection and recycling rates are not the same in that there are losses through recycling chains.
“Recycling starts with collection. An efficient collection system is one that relies on a well-functioning infrastructure, convenient collection and consumers’ education," explained Annick Carpentier, Director General, ACE.
"Sorting after collection also needs to be as efficient as possible."
“ACE calls for a 90% EU-wide collection target for beverage cartons by 2030 to support further recycling of beverage cartons. A mandatory target provides predictability of the collected volumes, further traceability of the recycling of packaging formats, encourages investments in recycling infrastructures and contributes to reaching the ambitious recycling targets set in the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD).
"It would also secure a level playing field between all packaging materials (the single use plastic directive mandates a 90% collection of PET bottles by 2030).”
Effectively, the collection target sets the stage for the recycling target: “The main hurdle to increased recycling is collection."
The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment: 2030 goals
- Produce beverage cartons only from renewable or recycled materials
- Use more fiber and less plastic
- Decarbonise the value chain in line with 1.5 degree target
- Achieve a 90% collection rate for recycling
- Achieve at last a 70% recycling rate verified by third parties
- Increase carbon sequestration and forest growth
- Call on the EU to ‘set mandatory recycled content requirements only where market driven recycling is not well-established’; ensure harmonized implementation of mandatory separate collection of all packaging; and set requirement for packaging to be low-carbon and recyclable or reusable by 2030’
Made up of 27 Member States, recycling and collection rates vary across the EU.
The good news is some countries are ahead of the curve, with specific collection/recycling targets by law in place in Belgium (90%), Germany (75%) and France (59%).
"There is a correlation between the existence of a collection or recycling target and the recycling rates," explained Carpentier. "High recycling rates can be achieved through well-functioning collection schemes (EPR) as is demonstrated by countries such as Belgium or Germany, which have rates of over 70%.
“Things can scale up rather quickly as demonstrated by the Netherlands that started collecting beverage cartons about six years ago and has already reached a recycling rate of around 60%.”
Breaking down recycling
The association points out that all the materials (fiber, polymers and aluminum) used in beverage cartons are recyclable: with carton recycling ‘in place and at scale in the EU’. There are currently around 20 paper mills across Europe which recycle beverage cartons.
An average beverage carton contains 75% paperboard, 21% polymers (mostly polyethylene: required as the waterproof layer in the carton) and 4% aluminum (protecting contents from light and oxygen).
Despite the need to separate and deal with separate materials, the association says beverage carton recycling itself 'is not a complex process’.
“The first step is to separate the fibers from the packaging through different special dissolving technology in a paper mill," explains Carpentier. "The long fibers used to produce beverage cartons are of high quality and hence in demand. Once recycled the fibers are used to produce new paper products, while the remaining aluminum and polymers are recycled to produce material for a variety of other new applications.
"After recovery of the fibers, the plastic film (LDPE), with or without the thin aluminum coating, and the caps and closures (HDPE/PP) remain as by-product (called PolyAl) which can subsequently enter the next recycling step.
"The aluminum and polymers (PolyAl) separated from paper fibers in the pulper is in some cases sent to a recycling plant where the PolyAl is either transformed into polymer granulates and the aluminum into aluminum or the combined PolyAl is used as such to produce new products.”
And it’s recycling these PolyAl elements that presents one of the main challenges. Currently around 30% of non-fiber components of beverage cartons are recycled into new materials: but the organization believes a host of investments can boost this to around 75% in 2025.
The organization says that several new developments and projects aimed at recycling the PolyAl elements of beverage cartons are already operational, or will be made operational soon, which will ensure that all the components of beverage cartons are recycled.
“With these new projects, roughly 30% of the European volume of these PolyAl rejects can be recycled in new material cycles (2021), where - for example - the recovered plastics and aluminum can be used in different applications as a substitute for virgin material.
"Further expansion of these processing options is expected for the near future, underscoring the investment and innovative solutions to secure that the beverage cartons placed on the EU market remain the most sustainable packaging solution as outlined in the industry’s 2030 Roadmap.
“There are good indications of a growing market in Europe for the secondary materials coming from PolyAl recycling. Several new recycling processes produce a stable high quality granulate that is highly wanted in the industry as a replacement for virgin materials. Especially LDPE finds its way into high end blow moulding applications.”
Investment, says the organization, is key to increasing recycling of these fractions.
“Our industry is truly committed to support increased recycling notably through investments. Some 200m investments have been made over the last years and some 120-150m investments are planned mainly to increase the recycling of the non fiber components of beverage cartons.”
And the association has just published guidelines on material composition of beverage cartons and how they should be designed for recycling.
‘Recyclable single-use are often more environmentally friendly than reusable alternatives’
Environmental advocacy Greenpeace recently called for the beverage industry to switch to a reuse and refill model: calling out failures in PET bottle recycling.
But Carpentier says that such reuse and refill models come with their own environmental cost, which needs to be carefully considered (the organization actually estimates that beverage cartons have a similar carbon footprint compared to reusable glass bottles).
“Setting mandatory reuse targets for packaging is not always the most environmentally beneficial option, as demonstrated through different recent studies*. It can present technical, hygiene and logistical challenges for the economy and additional costs due to the extra logistic and sanitization needed. Recyclable single-use solutions such as fiber-based packaging sourced from renewable materials are often more environmentally friendly than reusable alternatives.
“Reusable packaging should be recyclable and only implemented where most beneficial for the environment and safe for the consumers based on science and facts.
“Reuse targets should always be specific, proportionate and based on a sound scientific and comparative life cycle assessment of the impact of packaging, the packaged product and its system, accompanied by an evaluation of the economic and technological implications associated with such solutions. Measures should be clearly defined and focus on achievable goals for packaging that can be reused in practice.”
* Ramboll Comparative LCA on Single-Use and Multiple Use dishes systems for in-store consumption in QSR https://zerowasteeurope.eu/library/reusable-vs-single-use-packaging-a-review-of-environmental-impact/ Supporting evidence – Environmental performance of beverage cartons, Circular Analytics https://www.beveragecarton.eu/news-and-resource-centre/publications/