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Home » World Food Day » How the full cycle of our packaging affects food system resilience

Alex Henriksen

Managing Director, Tetra Pak North Europe

In what way can we create a food system that meets the needs of the industry and consumers, while reducing the environmental impact of packaging?

Recent global events highlight the fragility of our food system, which is failing to deliver the nutrition the world needs. This cannot continue when the global population is expected to grow by more than 25% between 2020 and 20501; and 821 million, globally, are currently undernourished2.

Businesses can be a catalyst for change. We need to re-examine how we can create a resilient food system, with high performance packaging that can deliver safe and nutritious food and does not impact the world’s limited resources. To do this, we must consider all stages of a package’s life cycle.

This means packaging that is not only made of fully renewable or recycled materials but is recyclable and carbon neutral — a goal we strive towards in our mission to create the world’s most sustainable package.

Consider the origin of packaging materials

Our goal is to make all our packages from fully renewable materials, including paperboard from responsibly managed forests and plastics derived from Bonsucro-certified sustainable sugarcane.

We, therefore, work closely with stakeholders to increase the use of renewable materials and have made substantial progress. We’ve delivered more than 1 billion of our Tetra Rex® packages — the first beverage carton to be manufactured solely from plant-based materials.

The aluminium layer currently used in food carton packages plays a critical role in ensuring food safety; and even though it is thinner than human hair, it contributes to a third of the greenhouse gas emissions linked to base materials. So, we recently tested an industry first, fibre-based barrier to replace the aluminium layer in our ambient packages.

A circular economy relies on value chains where cartons are collected, sorted, and recycled at scale — a goal the UK falls short of.

Rethinking ‘fully recyclable’

‘Recycling’ is often considered a silver-bullet solution to the packaging problem. This is an oversimplified view. In reality, multiple stakeholders need to be invested to improve recycling rates and infrastructure and consider recycling in package design.

We recently joined forces with leading beverage producers to launch tethered caps. This plays an important role in encouraging recycling, as the cap stays attached to the package and helps to reduce litter.

Taking recycling rates into account

Our responsibility does not end with carton design. A circular economy relies on value chains where cartons are collected, sorted, and recycled at scale — a goal the UK falls short of.

Our industry must work with partners and the Government to create a culture of carton recycling.

However, in research we commissioned last year, we found the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in the UK is still causing confusion, with 58% of consumers not understanding what the DRS entails and 59% saying they would be confused by it unless it was consistent with household recycling collections.

This underlines the importance of ensuring the process is as easy as possible. By excluding materials, the Government risks confusing consumers who are used to recycling a wider range of materials via other routes.

The food packaging system of the future

Achieving a resilient food system is only possible by considering every stage of a product – from sourcing the materials to how they’re managed end-of-life. This requires input from an integrated ecosystem of stakeholders combined with innovation and public education. It means a significant amount of work, but it is achievable — working in silos is no longer an option.

[2] World Health Organisation (WHO)

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