Ahead of the Rethinking Materials virtual summit tomorrow (May 19-20), PackagingInsights sits down with Markus Pfanner, Tetra Pak’s vice president for sustainability and speaker at the event.
In the first of two in-depth interviews, Pfanner discusses how the Swedish-Swiss multinational food packaging and processing company is tackling climate change, communicating packaging eco-credentials through design, and taking a holistic environmental approach.
In Part 2, Pfanner explores waste management strategies and COVID-19 impacts.
What message will Tetra Pak be conveying at the Rethinking Materials summit tomorrow?
Pfanner: We see the role of the food sector in tackling climate change as imperative moving forward, given the growing population and the alarming figures regarding food waste. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one-third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste today. To put it another way, if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of emissions.
Packaging helps keep food safe, nutritious and available – but it can also cause problems for the planet. Recycling has become a go-to solution to the packaging problem as part of a move to circularity. But the world cannot rely on recycling alone as fossil-based plastic production is still growing – it reached around 368 million metric ton in 2019 – and oil is a finite resource, responsible for one-third of carbon emissions.
We need to take a holistic environmental approach. Materials for the packaging alone cause more CO2 emissions than global aviation pre-COVID-19. If we do nothing, the sourcing and processing of these packaging materials will account for around 32 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2050. Only by seeing circular economy models through climate-lens will we decarbonize materials fast enough to protect our planet.
Sustainable and high-performance food packaging can make a difference here, help mitigate climate change and address other environmental concerns, while feeding a growing population. At Tetra Pak, we are already on this journey, aiming at creating cartons that are fully made of renewable or recycled materials, which are fully recyclable and carbon neutral.
What challenges are you facing in bringing more bio-based materials into your barriers, caps and closures?
Pfanner: Already today, the high share of renewable materials in Tetra Pak carton packages (approximately 70 percent paper) helps them feature a lower carbon footprint than many other alternatives, such as glass, plastic or metal packages. This was concluded via a 2020 life cycle assessment, stating – among other things – that if for one full year consumers and food producers in Europe would choose beverages packed in Tetra Brik Edge Aseptic 1 L packages with Light-Cap instead of PET bottles, it would save the equivalent of the CO2 emissions produced by 60,500 cars.
But we want to do more. Therefore we’re continuously exploring sustainable alternatives that enable a shift from high-carbon, fossil-based materials to low-carbon, renewable and responsibly sourced materials.
When looking at this journey, the biggest challenge is to ensure we deliver high-performance packaging while fulfilling three key requirements – full renewability, full recyclability and carbon neutrality.
This requires significant breakthroughs in several technologies. We are continuously developing and introducing new solutions while stepping up our investment levels. We have committed approximately €100 million (US$122 million) per year over the next 5 to 10 years to offer more sustainable packaging solutions.
What types of bio-based materials are you utilizing?
Pfanner: We have chosen to focus on a renewability- and recyclability-driven innovation pathway to ensure the decarbonization and circularity of materials and address the need for sustainable food packaging.
A 1 L Tetra Pak carton package is typically made of approximately 70 percent paperboard, a renewable resource. All our packaging material factories are supplied with paperboard from 100 percent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified and other controlled sources. This has enabled us to deliver over 640 billion FSC-labelled packages in more than 110 countries, helping our customers appeal to environmentally conscious consumers.
In 2011, we pioneered plant-based caps in the liquid food industry. We have produced over 12 billion bio-based caps made from sugarcane-based polymers ever since their launch in 2011 – an industry first – and have since then saved more than 300,000 tons of CO2 emissions through those products.
In 2014, we first introduced a package made fully from plant-based renewable materials, manufactured with paperboard and sugarcane-based plastic. Another industry first, the Tetra Rex Plant-based package, is fully renewable, and today, we’ve delivered more than one billion of these packages to customers around the world.
In 2019, we became the first carton packaging company to launch paper straws attached to portion packages in Europe, fulfilling our first Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. We are accelerating the expansion of our paper straws, offering to ensure further renewable and low carbon materials across our range of packaging solutions. This aims to address a broad range of customer sustainability needs while delivering on food safety and on the end-user drinking experience.
Again, in 2019, we made significant investments so all our European factories are now capable of plant-based polymer coating for carton packages while continuing development work to extend our fully plant-based offering to other products in our portfolio. Just last month, we announced that we are ready to deploy our portfolio of tethered cap solutions, planned to become available as a plant-based option, therefore increasing the renewable content of the package.
We are continuously investigating the possibility of new materials that will help increase our range of renewable, plant-based content within our portfolio while protecting natural resources. However, it’s all down to the availability of such materials as well as the technical applications. As it stands, we consider sugarcane to be the most viable option in the production of plant-based plastics. Indeed, the Bonsucro certification of the plant-based polymers in our packages – which we received in 2019, another industry first – supports sustainable sugarcane production.
Tetra Pak solutions are almost universally viewed as “sustainable.” How are you working to enhance your eco-credentials even further?
Pfanner: You are right. Already today, the high share of renewable materials in Tetra Pak carton packages helps them feature a lower carbon footprint than many other alternatives. But we want to do more and better. We aim at creating the world’s most sustainable food package, a high-performance carton that is fully recyclable – meaning materials being recycled at scale globally, carbon-neutral and fully made from renewable or recycled materials.
To bring this future carton package to life, a number of critical innovations are needed, such as expanding use of renewable polymers, introducing food safe recycled materials, and simplifying packaging material structure.
On the latter, replacing aluminum with an alternative barrier that still protects the food inside from oxygen and light is a development priority. We currently have our first aseptic packaging solution without aluminum on the shelves, and we will continue developing further paper-based cartons without aluminum, with no compromises on food safety.
In what ways are you communicating the sustainability of your packaging to increasingly eco-conscious end consumers?
Pfanner: Certification is important in this area, helping customers to choose sustainably sourced products. We rely on a platform of voluntary certification standards, such as the FSC and Bonsucro, helping us ensure we meet all the criteria and provisions for protecting biodiversity and natural environments.
We also have a connected packaging platform introduced in March 2019 as part of Tetra Pak’s commitment to “connect the food industry.” Each milk or juice carton has a unique code that, once scanned, transforms the package into an interactive information channel, full-scale data carrier and digital tool.
Shoppers can access vast amounts of information such as where the product was made, the farm the ingredients came from and where the package can be recycled. The dynamic QR-codes can also be used in customer campaigns to engage consumers through scan & win contests and loyalty programs. In March, we reached a major milestone with over one billion unique carton package codes now activated.
We support initiatives to drive major improvements in waste management and recycling infrastructures worldwide while simultaneously raising consumer awareness on the importance of recycling and the impact of littering. In December 2019, we launched a consumer-facing social media campaign across Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram – complemented by an influencer program – to educate UK consumers on how to recycle their carton packages. To date, the campaign has reached nearly six million people, and it is scheduled to continue throughout 2021.
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