We rely on everyday food items for our daily nutrition. However, many of these foods and beverages such as milk, juice and plant-based alternatives are highly perishable and have a shorter shelf life than other food types. Ensuring food safety, while continuing to lower the carbon footprint of the food value chain, is a key imperative for the food industry.
Aseptic processing and packaging solutions can provide the needed protection to perishable foods, making them available to consumers over vast distances with a longer shelf life.
Aseptic means free from microbiological contamination. The use of airtight aseptic filling and packaging systems can keep perishable liquid foods safe and flavourful for six to twelve months without need for refrigeration or preservatives, while also retaining their colour, texture, taste and nutrition.
The aseptic process safeguards both food and packaging materials, keeping them free of harmful bacteria when food is packaged. Everything in the production chain must be commercially sterile. That includes food and packaging materials, all machinery and the environment in which the packaging takes place.
The EU produces 250 million tonnes of perishable foods a year1. The food industry chooses beverage cartons for about 59% of juices, 75% of milk and a major share of dairy alternatives in the EU2.
If not aseptically processed and packed, perishables must be kept in the cold chain, with a shorter shelf life. Otherwise, the food will decay and spoil within days, posing risks to human health.
European policymakers now face the challenge of regulating packaging for this type of food in line with the EU Green Deal ambitions,3 aiming to make food systems sustainable and resilient, while supporting reductions in food loss, food waste and carbon footprint.
In juice production, the aseptic process of heat treatment, filling and packaging at the food producer enables the absence of harmful microorganisms across the entire distribution chain until consumption.7 This helps extend the shelf life of perishable foods and beverages, minimising loss and waste along the packaging and distribution process.
Beverage cartons play a crucial role in global food systems, helping make food safe and available, everywhere. Through the use of renewable plant-based materials and post-use recycling, they help reduce the carbon impact while also contributing to food waste reduction.
Beverage cartons are a recyclable, low carbon packaging solution essential for resilient supply chains. The high share of renewable materials in cartons (70% on average) helps them feature a lower carbon footprint than alternatives.6 They are also recycled at scale within the EU, with a >50% recycling rate5 and a commitment to increase this to 90% collected for recycling and 70% recycled by 2030.
Towards that end, the industry has already invested approximately €200 million into increasing the beverage carton recycling capacity in the EU and plans to invest a further €120 million by 2027. We are also investing €100 million per year to further enhance the environmental profile of food and beverage cartons, including the research and development of packages that are made with a simplified material structure and increased renewable content.
Packaging solutions have to ensure food safety above other priorities, and the use of recycled plastic in packaging depends on the availability of sufficient quantities of suitable food-grade materials.
Where these materials are available, increasing recycled or plant-based content in packaging can contribute to our journey towards a circular economy8 without compromising food safety. Tetra Pak has pledged to incorporate a minimum of 10% recycled plastic, on average, across our carton packages sold in Europe by 2025.
Innovative solutions will be required to increase recycled content in aseptic cartons. In 2022, we launched cartons with certified recycled polymers in the caps, tops and coatings of the packages, supporting circularity by reusing plastic that might have ended up in a landfill.
1Key figures on the European food chain, Eurostat, 2021.
22018 Liquid Fruit Market Report, AIJN, 2018.
3A European Green Deal, European Commission, 2019.
4Extended shelf life milk-advances in technology, Rysstad and Kolstad, 2006.
5Growth of food-borne pathogens Listeria and Salmonella and sporeforming Paenibacillus and Bacillus in commercial plant-based milk alternatives, Klaudia Bartula, Máire Begley, Noémie Latour, Michael Callanan, FOOD MICROBIOLOGY, 2023.
6‘Supporting evidence - Environmental performance of beverage cartons, Circular Analytics, 2020
7Tetra Pak Orange Book.
8The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution. – Ellen MacArthur.
9The term ‘food systems’ refers to all the elements and activities related to producing and consuming food, and their effects, including economic, health, and environmental outcomes (OECD, https://www.oecd.org/food-systems, 2023).