November 12, 2021

Eliminating food packaging waste means orchestrated action across the entire value chain

Every year, the world generates 2 billion tonnes of waste and by 2050, global waste is projected to increase by 70%. Materials that are used for food packaging, such as plastic and carton, reliably protect our foods from spoiling or being wasted. But these materials also make up a large share of global annual packaging waste.  
Today, food packages made from carton can be effectively collected and recycled in many places of the world – given adequate waste management and recycling infrastructures are in place. For us at Tetra Pak, that's not enough. We see it as our fundamental obligation to support the global and regional collection, sorting and recycling of packaging. 
By activating each link across the value chain and working in synergy with food manufacturers, municipalities, recyclers and other relevant stakeholders, we can unleash the benefits of the world’s most sustainable food package – a carton that helps provide access to safe, nutritious and tasty food for a growing population, while respecting the planetary boundaries.

Why we need to rethink today’s recycling infrastructure 

We can see clear signs of increased focus and commitment to scale up recycling of food packaging on several fronts. On a regulatory level, the EU has committed to ensuring that 65 percent of all packaging waste is recycled by 31 December 2025 and various industry collaboration platforms on collection and recycling have been established.

But when it comes to collection and recycling, circumstances can vary greatly across geographies. Some of the barriers of recycling include lacking waste management policies and infrastructures, insufficient capacities of recycling facilities to process materials as well as limitations of current recycling technologies to handle certain materials.

To address today’s challenges of recycling a systemic approach is required that takes all steps of the supply chain into account. Here’s what that means. 

Improving consumer awareness and education

Many consumers want to talk about recycling and consumer awareness has increased significantly in the past decade.

At the same time, the question on how to best collect and sort carton packages remains. Today, we can see large shares of packaging ending up in landfills due to inadequate education and inefficient or non-existent collection, sorting and recycling infrastructures.

Today, Tetra Pak carton packages are recycled and collected worldwide where waste management and recycling infrastructure are in place. But unfortunately, providing recyclable packaging material is not enough. We need to provide adequate collection and sorting infrastructure, drive consumer engagement and provide education to help increase recycling rates. 

Advancing recycling capabilities

Many of today’s recycling capabilities lack scale and adequate waste sorting at the source to get the most of materials. Too often, the infrastructure for waste collection, sorting and recycling is in place but cannot be exploited due to improper waste management systems.
To protect food from moisture, oxygen and light, we, for example, use thin layers of polymers and aluminium in our carton packages. To recover these materials and give them a new life, recycling operations need to be equipped with the right technology to separate the various components and turn these into high-quality products. 
That’s why we’re constantly seeking opportunities across the entire recycling value chain to improve how cartons get recycled. So far, we have increased the number of recycling operations we work with from 40 in 2010 to 170 today.
Increasing availability of renewable and recycled materials

For many food manufacturers, using virgin materials is still a cheaper and more reliable choice compared to switching to renewable or recycled material. And although renewable polymers are increasingly produced at an industrial scale, demand outpaces supply. 

The same goes for recycled polymers, used in many of Tetra Pak’s packages. That’s why earlier this year, we launched our certified recycled polymers to make better use of recycled materials and reduce dependence on virgin fossil materials. Innovations like these help us test and validate if the expected incremental volumes of recycled polymers help shape robust supply chains and provide value to our customers.

Designing for recycling from start to end

So far, fully eliminating packaging while still protecting foods is not an option. Recycling plays a critical role in addressing environmental issues, specifically with packaging waste, but it is not a solution on its own. It needs to be accompanied by upstream efforts on how packaging is designed and what materials are used.  

At Tetra Pak, for example, more than 70 percent of our packaging on average is made using renewable or recyclable material, but we also want to address the other 30 percent, such as polymers making up a small percentage in our packaging material. 

For that, we need to source solutions that cover the entire value chain – from how food packaging is sorted and collected to how its processed and cycled back into new high-quality products at the recycling plant. 

The power of collective action

Recycling of food packaging is a complex and multi-dimensional issue that cannot be solved by a single entity.

The most critical ingredient for higher recycling rates is collaboration that addresses all these topics simultaneously. A clear agenda underpinned by collective action can help us move a step closer to realising our ultimate ambition: a world where all packages are collected, recycled and never become litter. 

By working closely together with our suppliers, customers, technology providers, recyclers and key industry stakeholders we have been learning invaluable lessons on how to strengthen the collection, sorting and recycling infrastructures. And we won’t stop here. 

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