Renewable and sustainable are two qualities that have made the beverage carton one of the most popular packaging choices for brand owners.
It’s flexibility for the packaging of milk; fruit juice and now an increasingly wide range of food products have guaranteed the carton’s position on our supermarket shelves. Its ability to protect the freshness, flavor and nutritional qualities of fresh and long-life food and drink has all led to its success.
Its environmental statistics are impressive. Beverage cartons, on average, are made from 75% paperboard – a renewable material if made from wood fiber sourced from responsibly managed forests. They also contain some low density polyethylene layers to prevent leakage (21%) and, in aseptic cartons, a very fine layer of aluminium as a barrier to light and oxygen (4%). All the materials are recyclable.
These sustainable and recyclable qualities have until recently not been fully harnessed in the UK. When the UK’s only dedicated beverage carton recycling facility opened at the end of last year near Halifax in west Yorkshire, it offered an impressive solution to change this and significantly boost recycling rates.
The plant is a joint initiative between the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) UK – representing leading beverage carton manufacturers Tetra Pak, Elopak and SIG Combiblok – and paper and packaging producer Sonoco Alcore.
ACE also has the backing of paperboard manufacturers Stora Enso and BillerudKornsäs – producers of about 98% of the paperboard used by ACE UK members in beverage cartons in Europe.
Sonoco Alcore plays an essential part in this process. It is taking advantage of the strength and quality of the virgin wood fibers in cartons by turning them into industrial strength coreboard at its mill on the same site. This is then made into 100% recyclable tubes and cores, which are used to wrap paper, manmade fiber yarns and metal and plastic films around for industrial applications.
The polymer and fine aluminium layers used in beverage cartons (the latter only for long-life products), to prevent leakage and provide a barrier to oxygen, are also separated as part of the recycling process. Different approaches for recycling and recovering these are currently being assessed and a UK solution will be in place in this year. According to ACE UK the polymer and aluminium will be stored until then – it will not be landfilled or exported.
The site is capable of recycling up to 40% (25,000 tonnes) of the cartons manufactured each year for the UK food and drink market. In more visual terms, according to ACE UK this equates to 1.25 billion cartons which could be recycled, and laid end-to-end these would wrap around the circumference of the earth six times.
Although, according to Richard Hands, chief executive, ACE UK the organization would be “delighted” if every carton used in the UK could be recycled at the Yorkshire site, he feels this is a somewhat unrealistic goal based on a number of factors. He cites that 9% of local authorities do not collect cartons at all
For recycling and 37% collect via ‘bring banks’, which captures approximately 10% of what is placed on the market in that particular area.
Hands explains: “By creating a UK market for used beverage cartons, ACE is offering local authorities another local solution and we believe that this will drive increased recycling rates in the future.”
So if the demand is there, why has it been such a long time coming? Hands explains that economic tidal wave that hit many mills in the UK around 10 years ago was the main reason for liquid carton recycling coming to a halt.
Hands explains: “The Smith Anderson mill in Fife used to be able to recycle all cartons collected in the UK, but it had to close in 2006 due largely to the effects of significantly increased energy costs on their main paper recycling business. Smith Anderson was far from alone in this, with many other mills closing for similar reasons at the time.”
Following the Smith Anderson closure ACE UK and its members were not resting on their laurels and were working with local authorities to increase kerbside collections of beverage cartons.
The hard work paid off and Hands cites a much improved UK situation regarding collection. “Only 4% of local authorities collected cartons as part of their kerbside services in 2006 but now that figure is 54%. When carton recycling bring banks are included, 91% of local authorities now collect cartons for recycling – generating a greater and more consistent supply to the new recycling facility.”
Also, the temporary ‘blip’ in liquid carton recycling should not detract from a more positive overall situation regarding packaging recycling. Hands states: “in general recycling in the UK is a national success story. The UK’s municipal recycling rates were the fastest growing in Europe over the last 12 years. We now recycle 43% of our household waste in England – a huge increase from the 14% recycled just 10 years ago.”
According to ACE UK this upward trend is reflected across the UK with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales recycling 41%, 38% and 52% of household waste respectively.
However, the UK has lagged behind its European counterparts when it comes to beverage carton recycling rates, which is, according to Hands partly due to the way that recycling is organized and funded in the UK.
“Unlike the UK, countries like Germany and Belgium operate a system called Green dot, which raises significant funding for collection and recycling of different materials by placing a fee on packaging. This, together with a much more integrated collection system compared with the UK’s 400-plus local authorities has led to high rates for carton recycling.”
To address this inbalance ACE UK and Sonoco Alcore have put in place a system to create a favorable UK market for cartons, which makes their collection more attractive to local authorities.
Sonoco Alcore will offer a price per ton for used beverage cartons delivered to the new facility providing a better, more sustainable option compared to the price fluctuations on the global commodities market.
Adam Wood, vice president – industrial Converting Europe, Sonoco Alcore says: “The new carton recycling facility is capable of producing enough material each year for 15,500 tonnes of new coreboard – enough to make 17.8 million average-seized cores and provide a consistently secure supply of material for our company.”
According to Hands using the new facility has great benefits to councils. “Sending cartons to the new facility gives local authorities an opportunity to avoid landfill taxes and gate fees. When running at its full capacity of 25,000 tonnes/yr, the UK carton recycling facility has the potential to reduce landfill taxes and gate fees for local authorities by £3.6 million ($5.9 million) – based on landfill taxes and gate fees for 2013) – offering better value for council tax payers.”
A reduction on road and rail miles has also been achieved as previously cartons collected through ACE UK bring banks were recycled at mills in Sweden, but now recycling at the new facility will lead to an estimated annual reduction of 122 tonnes of transport related CO2.
ACE UK also has a dedicated recycling team, which offers advice and support to local authorities and community recycling networks wishing to collect cartons.