Carton manufacturer Elopak produces 14 billion cartons annually across more than 70 countries and describes itself as a system integrator and supplier. The company recently listed on the Oslo stock exchange and is pursuing a strategy of ‘sustainability-driven global growth’. Elisabeth Skoda speaks to Mr. Körmendi, the company’s CEO, about the sustainability benefits of beverage cartons, innovations and advances, recyclability and recycling rates, the company’s net zero targets and future developments.
On a broad level, could you outline what, in your opinion, makes beverage cartons a sustainable alternative to plastic bottles for drinks?
The two biggest sustainability issues we are currently facing are global warming, which relates to CO2 emissions, and littering, which can be reduced through recycling. Cartons are fully recyclable and are based on a renewable resource - pulp and paper. This has a significantly lower carbon footprint than any other competing packaging system. Compared to PET, cartons can have anywhere between a 65% up to 85% lower CO2 footprint. With the ambition to reduce our CO2 footprint, cartons of any kind play a significant part.
When it comes to recycling, Europe currently has a carton recycling rate of 51%, according to statistics, and in some member states, this rate goes up to 70%. Provided the right collection structure is in place, it is a very sustainable and useful packaging material type.
Renewability is a strong point of cartons. We can protect food and/or other products, and we can play a fundamental, critical role in reducing food waste, which of course also is critical when it comes to CO2 emissions.
Are there any notable advances in beverage carton technology to improve product protection or boost recyclability you’d like to talk about?
Cartons already are very strong in product protection now. The real question is whether we can retain the benefits of the product protection we have and at the same time reduce our CO2 footprint.
There are various ways of doing so from a packaging point of view. We have reduced the number of layers in the packaging material by introducing an unbleached brown paperboard – an unbleached board is a stronger paperboard that requires less material Less material used means lower CO2 emissions. This has been introduced widely – around 20% of our milk sales in Europe have been converted to brown board material.
We also work on the various layers and barrier materials that are used to protect the product content. We have just introduced a non-alu foil aseptic carton, where we have replaced the aluminium foil using a polyolefin blend barrier . This reduces the CO2 footprint of the packaging significantly. To put this in perspective, by introducing a pack made of natural brown board and no aluminium foil, we can reduce the CO2 footprint of our own aseptic pack by up to 50%. Thinking back to the comparison of PET vs drinks cartons, the savings in CO2 emissions become even more pronounced.
Could you tell me more about the work Elopak does to make beverage cartons easily recyclable, and boost recycling rates?
All industry players, including board manufacturers and packaging material suppliers, have committed to increasing recycling rates and improving materials. There’s a very strong understanding, drive and recognition in the industry and across associations that we must do our bit, we must find ways of making this easier and make sure that we have sufficient recycling schemes in place across Europe and eventually outside of Europe.
I understand that Elopak’s manufacturing has been carbon neutral since 2016 – how has this been achieved?
We initiated a number of investments in the plants, including changing equipment from gas heated to electricity heated, and a range of equipment changes that drive a lower CO2 footprint. But beyond that, we have been using carbon offset programmes. Of course in the long run, offset programmes are not enough, you need to actually reduce your carbon footprint.
Our work on this will lead us all the way to 2050, when we have committed to becoming a net zero company.
Could you tell me more about Elopak’s net zero targets?
Elopak is one of the first companies to have their zero targets approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). We believe in the importance of this both from a value and a business point of view. Every company in the world will need to deliver on this, and we see that our customers and our customers’ customers, the retailers, are also committing to it. Early on, we committed to reaching a science-based target, which means the world’s temperature should increase by no more than 1.5 degrees. This is a tough target, but there is a lot we can do. In scope 1 and 2, we could reduce our own CO2 emissions by 42%, and in scope 3 another 25%.
There are many things that can be done, and we are well on track, overall. Of course, it’s very easy to commit to what we should do in 2050, when many of us won’t be around any more, at least not in our current roles. But to arrive at that figure in 2050, there are things that need to happen now, and that is in place. Looking all the way down to the net zero targets from where we are now, some of it relies on innovation that hasn’t happened yet. But I’m optimistic that as an industry, we can commit and drive development and innovation.
Looking to the future – how do you see the beverage carton industry develop in the coming years?
The interest in and demand for carton as a product and as a material is increasing in our part of the world, both in the liquid food sector and beyond it. We strongly believe that there will be a replacement of plastics as a packaging material towards cartons, driven by sustainability concerns.
Moreover, right now there is also a TCO component, given the plastic and resin pricing, That could change over time. But the overall sustainability drive and the need for retailers and customers to deliver on their CO2 target means that they will need to find solutions with lower CO2 emissions, and carton definitely fits that brief. We offer some good solutions in that context, we are value-based and value-driven in that respect, and develop and drive the business very much with that in mind. I see the carton market growing in many directions beyond milk, juice and liquid food, into other areas where they can replace plastics.