Aseptic cartons are the most popular form of aseptic packaging in the world1. According to the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE), 51% of beverage cartons in the EU are being recycled. But analysis by Zero Waste Europe indicates that this figure could be skewed by the inclusion of food and drink particles that remain on the packaging at the time of recycling2.
There are also issues with the packaging design itself. While there’s little doubt about the benefits of beverage cartons – they are lightweight, easy to transport, and can keep foods fresh for longer – there are clear downsides that both manufacturers and consumers have been wrestling with. Shelf-stable cartons are typically made of a mix of paper, plastic and aluminum (on average, that’s 72.5% fibreboard, 24% polymer and 3.5% aluminum according to Zero Waste Europe), and detaching the paper from the rest is where the challenge lies.
When we asked beverage carton manufacturers Tetra Pak and SIG what they are doing to boost recycling rates for this type of packaging, both companies emphasized that cartons are by design recyclable – but there are infrastructure barriers and other regional challenges that are yet to be fully addressed.
“Aseptic beverage cartons already offer a significantly lower environmental footprint than alternative types of packaging due to their high share of renewable materials, light weight and efficient design,” a spokesperson for SIG told us. “Our main focus for investment to increase recycling capacity is on more facilities to recycle the remaining polymer and aluminium – either together as a robust PolyAl material that can be used for roof tiles or furniture, or separately to enable wider applications for the recycled materials.
“We are also partnering with customers and other players in our industry to extend the recycling infrastructure and collection systems around the world as part of our shared responsibility roadmap to enhance the rate of carton packs that are recycled.”
Davide Braghiroli, product director, packaging materials, alternative barriers at Tetra Pak, shared the sentiment: “Carton packages are recyclable - they are increasingly being collected and recycled where efficient waste management and recycling infrastructures are in place. For example, they are recycled at scale in Europe.
“However, circumstances vary greatly across the globe, with different sets of opportunities and challenges.” He added that ‘systemic change is needed in many countries to increase the collection rate, as well as large investments to grow the capacity of paper mills and polyAl recyclers’ infrastructure’.
“In the EU, the beverage carton industry has invested €200m/US$213.3m into increasing the capacities for beverage carton recycling, and is set to increase this figure to €320/US$341.3m by 2027.
“There is also recognition that to increase recycling rates, cartons must be made attractive to recyclers.
“We are accelerating research and development into carton packages that are made with a simplified material structure, reduced usage of fossil-based virgin plastic and increased paper-based content.”
Both SIG and Tetra Pak have innovated in the past decade to bring more sustainable alternatives to food and beverage manufacturers. In 2010, SIG released the combibloc EcoPlus – an aseptic carton that didn’t contain aluminum and had a 27% lower carbon footprint than SIG’s standard packaging material. The company later introduced Signature100, which offered 58% lower footprint. Both products were suitable for plain white milk and other oxygen-insensitive products, and in 2022, SIG also rolled out the SignatureEvo, to provide a similar solution for oxygen-sensitive products such as juices and flavored milk.
Tetra Pak meanwhile is working on a suite of alternative barrier solutions, including the industry’s first fibre-based barrier replacement for aluminum. “Due to its increased share of renewable material, the concept carton with fibre-based barrier is expected to offer substantial carbon reduction when compared to traditional aseptic cartons, together with comparable shelf life and food protection properties,” explained Braghiroli. “In addition, cartons with higher paper content are also more attractive for paper mills; thus, this concept presents clear potential for realising a low carbon circular economy for packaging.”
“The fibre-based barrier represents a critical marker in our long-term work on design for recycling, where increasing renewable paper content remains a key priority.” – Davide Braghiroli, Tetra Pak
“As part of this work, we're also continuously exploring sustainable alternatives that shift us from high-carbon, fossil-based materials to low-carbon, renewable and responsibly sourced ones. In this context, we sold 17.6 billion plant-based packages and 10.8 billion plant-based caps in 2021, equating to 96 kilo tonnes of CO2 saved compared to fossil-based plastic.”
He continued: “Our work on alternative barriers aims to further boost value for recyclers. We are investing approximately €100m per year over the next 5-10 years to develop sustainable packaging solutions. Our ambition is to offer aseptic packages with an alternative barrier to customers, and this includes the package with fibre-based barrier. What to replace and when will be a decision led by market teams in alignment with their customers.”
Thermoforming plastics: Another recycling conundrum
Packaging manufacturer Amcor recently unveiled a new thermoformable film for hard cheese. DairySeal is said to be recyclable within polyethylene streams and offers an 80% carbon reduction compared to traditional polyamide (PA) or polyethylene (PE) films.
According to Plastics Recyclers Europe’s 2020 study Flexible Films Market in Europe: State of Play, only 23% of all PE films from food packaging are recycled, and films disposed of in the household collection stream can be difficult to recycle due to contamination and even due to the type of plastic films are made of.
“The challenges of recycling thermoforming films are related to the content of polyamide and barrier material during the sorting process,” Yi Jiang, marketing director, dairy, at Amcor EMEA, told us. “The actual recycling rates depend on a number of factors including the design of the packaging, the local infrastructure for recycling and broader consumer awareness (understanding which packaging to put in the designated bin).”
“Although there has been an increase in installed recycling capacity for flexible films in Europe over the past few years, household recycling rates are still quite low,” Jiang admitted.” This is why Amcor has developed DairySeal, which has been designed to be the all-encompassing solution for the sorting and recycling infrastructure. The new thermoforming film is recyclable in all European regions with PE flexible steams and supports Amcor’s 2025 Sustainability Pledge and our customer’s sustainability agenda.”
But according to Cyclos-HTP - the independent testing and certification body that has ruled DairySeal to be recycle-ready - only some European countries, such as Austria, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Slovenia have facilities to recycle the material at scale.
Jiang however insists that the material offers a future-proof packaging solution, even if they trade in countries that don’t yet recycle PE. “Our DairySeal Recycle-Ready Thermoforming Film will offer a future-proof solution even in regions where PE recycling may not yet be established. We’re already seeing this approach being adopted particularly by our larger, multinational customers.”
Jiang added that while there’s appetite from the industry to adopt recyclable packaging, there are cost and infrastructure barriers. “The majority of our customers in Europe are actively working on tests and trials to make their packaging recycle-ready.”
“One of the key factors affecting adoption speed and breadth at the customer and country level is the amount of resources invested by a company in developing and introducing new recycle-ready packages, approach to managing operational and cost implications, as well as the availability of packaging solutions and recycling infrastructure.” - Yi Jiang, Amcor EMEA
Amcor says it is also engaging with the wider industry and regulators to improve recycling rates.
“We are actively involved in discussions with stakeholders to establish the guidelines of recyclability,” Jiang told us. “These conversations also touch on the food packaging value chain from a European perspective via the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging initiative, Recyclass and the Packaging Recovery Organisation. The activities are split between presenting scientific evidence based on recycling testing of what is genuinely recyclable and developing new solutions within the boundaries of the guidelines.”
The sentiment was echoed by Tetra Pak’s Davide Braghiroli, who added: “In the EU, beverage cartons pack about 75% of milk, 59% of juices and a major share of dairy alternatives, as such playing a crucial role to enable a resilient food system. We are ramping up multi-stakeholder dialogue and investments to ensure materials from these cartons can re-enter the economy at the end of their use.
“As an industry, we have the ambition to achieve a 90% collection rate and a 70% effective recycling rate in the European Union by 2030.”
SIG’s spokesperson concluded: “We are also advocating and driving initiatives to increase collection and recycling of used beverage cartons through industry partnerships, for instance ACE, EXTR.ACT or the Consumer Goods Forum, and we are also part of national producer responsibility organisations, industry associations and other interest groups that seek to promote recycling in key countries around the globe.”
1 Aseptic Packaging Demand to Grow 5.5% Annually Through 2026
The Freedonia Group
Published August 2022
2 Recycling of multilayer composite packaging: the beverage carton
A report on the recycling rates of beverage cartons in Germany, Spain, Sweden and the UK