Tetra Pak recently released its 'Positive Packaging: Towards a Low Carbon Future' report, in which it sheds light on how consumers, the industry, and regulatory bodies are responding to sustainability concerns.

In this interview, we speak with Alex Henriksen, managing director of Tetra Pak North Europe, to unpack some of the key assertions of the report and look at the impact they might have on the future of packaging sustainability.

In chapter one of the report, you say that “environmentalism has asserted its position as a primary concern”. In your opinion, what has driven this change?

I believe it is a combination of factors – firstly, greater awareness around these issues, but secondly, greater debate and interest in them too. The popularity of Extinction Rebellion last year; Greta Thunberg’s speeches; and more information being publicised and consumed by the general public. The public is increasingly being educated on climate change and the impact on our environment.

More statistics and proof points are being published. For example, the Arctic Circle recording its highest ever temperature this year. This has an impact on the hearts and minds of those consuming this information, resulting in a proactive mindset and a drive to change.

Over half of the UK population say they are “very concerned” about climate change. Now, consumer awareness is translating into changing behaviour and demonstrable action – including increased demand for sustainable alternatives.

This has led to a groundswell of public interest in packaging that is deemed to be more sustainable. What effect has this had on manufacturers themselves?

We are pleased with the increase in public interest as it has given the entire packaging value chain the opportunity to relook at its processes across the life cycle of a package. Our focus is on reducing the carbon footprint during these stages to help bring about a more sustainable future overall.

Simply, we’ve stepped up our game in terms of taking the necessary steps towards building a low-carbon circular economy. At Tetra Pak, we’ve committed to net zero emissions across our operations by 2030 and invested in new innovations such as the paper straw and tethered caps.

Our Tetra Rex® Plant-based package remains the world’s first, and only, fully renewable beverage carton, with it being made from fully renewable materials. Whilst the industry still needs to do more – we’re certainly heading in the right direction.

What is the importance of retailers in this paradigm shift and what are they/should they be doing to affect change?

We know that for our sector to make real change, all participants need to make the issue of sustainability a priority – and retailers are central to this. For most consumers, retailers act as the conduit to more environmental choices. If retailers don’t provide low-carbon packaging options on their shelves, consumers simply can’t buy them.

At the same time, retailers are in a unique position where they can directly influence the choice of packaging from food manufacturers. Our research uncovered some of the challenges and opportunities for retailers in this matter. Nine in ten say they have changed their packaging on offer in response to climate change concerns and more than three quarters agree they could do more to offer products with packaging that has a low environmental impact.

You identify “plant-based, renewable materials” as the key to reducing climate impact. Could you explain this idea to us?

A low-carbon circular economy as a solution to reduce climate impact can only work if there is innovation in the use of low-carbon materials. Our ambition has always been to create packages that save more than they cost. Plant-based materials such as paperboard can be replenished over time, however, we recognise the importance of finding packaging solutions that not only strongly contribute to a low-carbon economy but are also fully recyclable without ever compromising on food safety.

Currently, more than 70% of our packaging is composed of paperboard that can be recycled multiple times and we are continuing to innovate with polymers derived from sugarcane rather than fossil fuels. In 2017, we delivered the first fully plant-based carton – the Tetra Rex® Plant-based. All of our plant-based materials are also fully traceable to their origins and are certified.

Not everyone agrees about which materials have the lowest carbon impact. How would you respond to reports, such as this Green Alliance one, that some alternatives to plastic might actually be worse for the environment? Also, do you think that there is a risk of retailers shifting from plastics to materials with “greater environmental impacts” because of public pressure?

In some circumstances, it is true that plastic-alternative materials can have a significant climate impact, with glass and metal having the highest impact of the alternatives available. There has certainly been a backlash towards plastics and we recognise the need to reduce our consumption and use of it.

However, we also need to consider the role it plays in maintaining food safety and reducing food waste. But, when you look at independent LCA studies, cartons generally do very well when compared to alternatives, especially on climate impact.

We know from our research that retailers are facing public pressure to provide environmentally friendly options. But it’s also important for the conversation to contemplate the full life cycle of creating these materials, not just how they’re disposed of. Not taking a step back and seeing the broader picture could lead to alternatives that are in fact worse for the environment.

You argue that government intervention is of the utmost importance. What actions would you recommend to governments in terms of how they can help the packaging industry to achieve its sustainability potential?

It’s reassuring to see the UK Government pledge significant investment into industry research and development. But reaching a low-carbon economy will require a collaborative effort amongst industry and policymakers around waste and recycling initiatives. 

While retailers trialling deposit return schemes (DRS) is a positive sign, governments must ensure collection systems are in place for all packages and that existing collection schemes remain effective and efficient to increase consumer participation and recycling rates. We believe that new reforms should not discriminate between different forms of packaging or favour certain types over others.

Beverage cartons must be included in the Government’s proposed core set of materials for consistent household collection and recycling, and we welcome the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging – this should include a specific beverage carton recycling target.

We also believe that the low-carbon impact of plant-based plastics should be reflected in policy development, to encourage more manufacturers to use them. For example, we encourage the Government to exclude plant-based plastics from the scope of the proposed plastic packaging tax.