Peter Harding, CEO of Suntory Beverage & Food Europe, was recently elected as the new President of Unesda – the association representing the soft drinks industry in Europe. What are Harding’s thoughts on the most important issues currently facing the packaging industry? We recently had a conversation with him to find out.
To start us off, could you tell us a bit about your professional background and how you found yourself in this new role?
I’ve held a number of commercial and marketing roles in FMCG companies, and joined the consumer healthcare industry when I started at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in 1991. After spending several years in different roles at GSK in 2013, I led the integration team when the Suntory Group purchased Lucozade and Ribena from GSK. I became the Chief Operating Officer of Lucozade Ribena Suntory in 2013.
In 2018, I was appointed CEO of Suntory Beverage & Food Europe and am now responsible for leading Suntory’s strategic direction and growth across 60 countries across Europe, Africa and overseas territories. I am focused on driving change in our business mainly by expanding our portfolio of products, including growing our low- and no-sugar drinks, and accelerating our efforts to make our packaging more sustainable.
Becoming UNESDA’s President was a natural step after serving as the First Vice-President of the association in the past two years. I am excited to have this opportunity to support UNESDA in ensuring the sustainability of our soft drinks industry by promoting our diverse and innovative industry, increasing awareness of the economic value our industry contributes to the European economy and advocating for more legal certainty and predictability for our sector to grow and deliver on its many commitments.
What will your key packaging-related objectives and goals be for the duration of your time with UNESDA?
UNESDA has pledged to achieve fully circular packaging by 2030, making bold commitments on collection, recycling and reuse of our packaging: we aim to reach 100% recyclable soft drinks packaging and use an average of 50% recycled content in our PET bottles by 2025. We are also committed to achieving by 2030 at least 90% collection for all our packaging (plastics bottles, metal cans and glass bottles), using only PET bottles made from 100% recycled and/or renewable material and increasing the offer of reusable and refill systems.
To intensify our circularity efforts, policy support is vital. My objective is to constructively engage with EU decision-makers to build together the right policy environment that:
- Supports a wider roll-out around Europe of well-designed Deposit and Return Systems (DRS), which are one of the most effective ways of increasing the collection of beverage packaging.
- Ensures our collected recyclable packaging is recycled in a closed-loop system to prevent it from being downcycling into non-food applications. This will enable our sector and its hundreds of SMEs to meet the EU mandatory recycled content targets as well as our own voluntary targets.
- Respects the complementarity of recycling and reuse solutions to improve the sustainability of our packaging.
I wonder how you would reflect on the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive revisions – which have been the cause of much discussion in recent times? In your view – what do they get wrong, and what do they get right?
The EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) has the potential to accelerate the transition to a circular economy for beverage packaging and to create the right enablers for our sector. Our sector has already made significant progress in ensuring the circularity of our packaging as set out in our Circular Packaging Vision launched in 2021.
We have welcomed the focus on Deposit and Return Systems (DRS) and fully agree that these systems are proven to increase collection and recycling rates, create closed loops and improve the availability of material that can be recycled into our products again. One of the positive elements in the proposal is the inclusion of minimum requirements, which provide guidance to Member States on how to implement well-designed DRS in the most effective way to increase the collection of beverage packaging.
We believe the minimum requirements can be improved by adding a priority access mechanism so that food-grade safe material e.g. plastic bottles collected via DRS remain in a closed-loop system and are recycled back into the product they were originally intended for rather than being downcycled into non-food applications like toys or clothes. That’s the only way to achieve true circularity and this will help the hundreds of SMEs in our sector to comply with the EU mandatory recycled content targets.
An area that is receiving a lot of attention is reuse, largely because the European Commission has not properly assessed the environmental and economic implications of the proposed targets. Our sector agrees that reuse and refill can be part of the solution, as a complement to the great efforts already made to reduce and recycle packaging. The complementarity between recycling and reuse is key and needs to be respected.
The benefits of setting up new reusable systems need to be properly assessed to ensure reuse is only put in place where it makes the most sense from an environmental perspective. To achieve this, the new PPWR needs to provide economic operators with the flexibility to invest in the best packaging mix, taking into consideration all relevant factors, including how well a specific type of packaging is collected and recycled in countries where a very efficient collection and recycling scheme exists.
From paper bottles to biodegradable materials, alternative formats are frequently hailed as a potential solution to the packaging waste issue. What are your thoughts on formats like this – could they eventually challenge PET/aluminium etc for supremacy?
A great solution is our priority to move away from virgin plastic bottles to fully circular beverage bottles by increasing the amount of recycled content in our PET bottles. We are committed to providing bottles made of an average of 50% recycled PET (rPET) by 2025 and PET bottles made from 100% recycled and/or renewable material by 2030. This is a lower-carbon alternative and it is also durable. That’s our main focus. We are also looking at alternative solutions such as reusable packaging, and fully recyclable packaging to meet consumer expectations.
We see plenty of reusable and refillable packaging projects getting trialled, but very few of these ever reach commercial maturity. As the CEO of a major brand owner – how would you reflect on the potential of reuse/refill systems, and how can we make the use of them more widespread?
Reuse and refill are part of the solution to reduce packaging and packaging waste, and the industry is investing in these types of packaging solutions. Today, there are many reusable and refillable beverage solutions, from the more traditional reusable refillable bottle to home soda dispensers or refill stations in stores and HORECA.
The key is to provide economic operators with the flexibility to invest in the packaging mix that makes the most sense for them and for the environment. That’s why all reusable and refill solutions should be part of the systems that will help our sector to achieve the reuse and refill targets proposed in the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation.
You mention “plenty of projects” but we should not forget that the share of reusable packaging in Europe is currently very low and the transition towards more reusable packaging would require significant changes and investments to adapt manufacturing and bottling processes, transport, distribution, collection, storage of used bottles, as well as consumer preferences and habits.
A PwC study for UNESDA estimates a cost of more than €16 billion to achieve 10% refillable PET as of 2030 in the EU. This same report also concludes that reusable beverage packaging has additional environmental costs compared to single-use recyclable packaging and that’s why we ask for the reuse targets to be based on a proper environmental impact assessment.
Another element that we cannot disregard is consumer acceptance of the new reuse solutions. This is built over time and requires collaboration between the public and private sector.
Furthermore, the diversity of EU Member States needs to be taken into consideration. Each EU country has its own history with reuse, its own infrastructure, different sustainability credentials and a very broad variety of beverage companies that need to be accounted for. For example, in Germany, returnable refillable packaging works well but it has been established for decades with massive investments being made to set up the infrastructure and complex operational processes required – and this has been refined over time.
It also works because German consumers are very much engaged in this system and have been incentivised to use it from the start. We can also take Spain as an example of where returnable glass bottles are popular in HORECA. This shows that there is an opportunity to build on existing systems in countries that already have the right infrastructure in place.
Having said that, we cannot disregard the fact that many Member States have already invested significantly in circular solutions that promote the collection and high-quality recycling of our beverage packaging. These solutions are already a key enabler of the objectives of the PPWR, and this is why we need to talk about the complementary nature the reusable and recycling systems.
We will continue to cooperate with EU regulators to create an enabling policy framework that promotes closed-loop recycling, ensures realistic targets and timeframes, and is innovation-friendly. All of this is key to helping our sector to deliver on its commitments and supporting the diversity of our companies.
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