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Tetra Pak fights climate change with fiber-based barrier alternative to aluminum in food cartons

July 14, 2022
Energy & Chemical Value Chain

Tetra Pak is testing a fiber-based barrier to replace the aluminum layer in its cartons for improved climate impact and recyclability. The “industry-first” technology is currently on shelf for commercial consumer testing for food carton packs distributed under ambient conditions.

According to the packaging leader, the aluminum layer typically used in cartons for food safety contributes one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions linked to its base materials, despite being thinner than human hair.

The consumer tests follow the successful completion of a 15-month commercial technology validation of a polymer-based barrier in Japan in 2020. The test helped the company understand the value chain implications of swapping out aluminum and quantify the carbon footprint reduction. It also confirmed adequate oxygen protection for vegetable juice while enabling increased recycling rates in a country where recyclers reportedly favor aluminum-free cartons.

Incorporating these learnings, the company is now testing a fiber-based barrier in collaboration with some of its customers. A first pilot batch of single-serve packs featuring the new material is currently on shelf for a commercial consumer test, with further technology validation scheduled later this year.

Life cycle considerations
Transformational and collaborative innovation is critical to enhancing the environmental credentials of carton packs, since shifting from an aluminum layer to an alternative barrier has implications that impact the full system, Davide Braghiroli, product director for packaging materials at Tetra Pak, tells PackagingInsights.

“The implications span across the packaging material composition perspective, the opening or closure perspective, and the sealing technology perspective,” he explains.

“The aluminum layer in aseptic cartons has both a functionality to protect food from oxygen and light, and a technical purpose, because it is responsible for the sealing of the cartons in the filling machine.”

“Therefore, it is critical to use the full product life cycle as the compass guiding our development, including, for instance, supplier collaborations and recycling assessment.”

The recyclability road
Tetra Pak has a long-term roadmap to develop aseptic packaging that is fully renewable, recyclable and carbon-neutral.

This initiative underscores the company’s approach to designing its packaging for recycling, increasing the paper content and supporting end-user expectations. Based on recent global research, approximately 40% of consumers confirmed they would be more motivated to sort for recycling if packages were made entirely from paperboard and had no plastic or aluminum.

“Early results suggest that the package with a fiber-based barrier will offer substantial CO2 reduction when compared to traditional aseptic cartons, together with comparable shelf life and food protection properties,” says Gilles Tisserand, vice president for Climate & Biodiversity at Tetra Pak.

“We believe this development will therefore act as a breakthrough in reducing climate impact. In addition, cartons with higher paper content are also more attractive for paper mills; thus, this concept presents a clear potential for realizing a low carbon circular economy for packaging.”

Eva Gustavsson, vice president for Materials & Package at Tetra Pak, adds: “Addressing complex issues such as climate change and circularity requires transformational innovation. This is why we collaborate not just with our customers and suppliers, but also with an ecosystem of start-ups, universities and tech companies, providing us access to cutting edge competencies, technologies and manufacturing facilities.”

“To keep the innovation engine running, we are investing €100 million (US$101 million) per year and will continue to do so over the next 5-10 years to further enhance the environmental profile of food cartons, including the research and development of packages that are made with a simplified material structure and increased renewable content.”

Circular strides
Tetra Pak continues to improve the circularity of its carton packs. This year, it unveiled the industry’s “first” carton cap made from certified recycled polymers with Elvir, a subsidiary of leading milk processor Savencia Fromage & Dairy.

The Swedish-Swiss multinational also revealed that more than half (58%) of UK consumers do not understand what the incoming Deposit Return Scheme entails, which could undermine the UK government’s flagship recycling policy.

The company also partnered with cell-free biomanufacturing processes developer EnginZyme to bring environmentally sustainable and economically sound nutrition and food waste solutions to the food and beverage industry.

We recently spoke to Susana Aucejo, senior R&D director at DS Smith, about the importance of barrier technologies for replacing hard-to-recycle plastics in e-commerce packaging.

By Joshua Poole


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