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What are Beverage Cartons composed of? Are they recyclable?

Beverage cartons are a sustainable form of packaging that allows the safe use, storage and transport of beverages and food.

Beverage cartons are paper-based packaging used to protect and distribute dairy products, juices and food and are, on average, made of (by weight):

  • 75% paperboard – a renewable material coming from sustainably managed forests
  • 21% polymers – mostly polyethylene, to prevent leakage
  • 4% aluminium – to protect drinks and food from light and oxygen

These component materials are recyclable and beverage cartons are widely recycled, with a recycling rate of 49% in 2018 on average in the EU. Furthermore, industry is convinced that the beverage carton recycling rate will continue to increase thanks to the legal requirement for Member States to separately collect all packaging and the industry’s commitment to support recycling.

How do beverage cartons contribute to a low carbon circular economy?

Beverage cartons contribute to a low carbon circular economy in several ways. All paperboard that goes into ACE members’ products comes from responsibly managed forests certified to rigorous sustainability standards, such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The renewable material used in beverage cartons allows the packaging to have one of the lowest carbon footprints in their core categories of milk and juice.

Recycling provides further valuable material with which to produce other paper products.

How are beverage cartons key to unlocking the potential of the circular economy?

Beverage cartons are largely made from renewable materials, such as wood-based fibres. These fibres come from responsibly managed forests, which ensure positive social and environmental impacts. These materials further replace the use of finite fossil resources, have the ability to be recycled and provide input material for additional new products.

Aren’t beverage cartons more difficult to recycle than plastic bottles?

While not being made of one single material, beverage cartons are recyclable and recycled in Europe. The fibre is separated from the polymers and aluminium in a special pulper. These fibres are used to produce new paper products, while for the moment the aluminium and polymers are mainly used for energy recovery. However, several projects aimed at recycling the non-fibre elements of beverage cartons will be made operational throughout 2020 which will ensure that all the components of beverage cartons are duly recycled.

How can recycling rates of beverage cartons be improved?

The key to improving recycling rates of beverage cartons is to ensure the collection of all used beverage cartons.

A national collection or recycling target for beverage cartons would ensure that beverage cartons are duly recycled into new products. Now that Member States are in the process of developing measures to implement the Waste Framework Directive, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive and in due course, the Single-Use Plastics Directive, it is the right time to adopt such a target for a beverage carton collection/recycling.

Does the industry innovate?

The industry constantly innovates to offer a packaging solution that provides better environmental credentials and functionalities, while being fully recyclable.

With regard to recycling, the industry is committed to supporting recycling and has created a pan-European recycling platform, EXTR:ACT, that seeks to better coordinate and support collection and recycling. This platform notably focuses on scaling up the recycling of the Poly Al fraction.

Some countries reach high collection and recycling rates for beverage cartons. What are the barriers currently preventing all Member States from doing the same?

Some Member States lag behind in terms of infrastructure to ensure the collection of packaging. We call on all Member States to ambitiously implement the legal requirement to separately collect all packaging. Once collected, it is natural that beverage cartons will find their way to recycling mills and ultimately into new products.

In Belgium, for example, the recycling rate of beverage cartons is roughly 90% thanks to an efficient household collection system. Beverage cartons are collected with lightweight packaging, sorted to an EU accepted industry standard (EN-643) and sent to recycling plants.

Furthermore, the industry’s newly formed pan-European recycling platform, EXTR:ACT, seeks to better coordinate and support collection and recycling. This platform will also focus on scaling up the recycling of the polymer and aluminum fraction.

Will an increased collection/recycling rates be beneficial to the environment?

Increased rates of beverage carton collection and recycling will undeniably have a positive impact on the environment, from reducing the volume of virgin raw materials going into new products to the reduction in carbon emissions from the re-use of materials in the circular economy. In addition, beverage cartons have one of the lowest carbon footprint compared to other packaging systems for milk and juice.

How widely are beverage cartons currently collected/recycled in the EU?

Recycling of beverage cartons in Europe has grown steadily over the last number of years, with around 450,000 tonnes recycled in 2018. This represents a recycling rate of 49%, with some countries, such as Belgium or Germany, having rates over 80%.

In most Member States, citizens either have their beverage cartons collected from their homes or take them to nearby collection points. Some countries also have specific targets such as Austria (50%), Belgium (60%), Germany (75%) or France (59%).

Would a beverage carton collection/recycling target support recycling of beverage cartons?

Collection is the pre-condition to recycling. Collecting all packaging materials separately significantly increases the volume of materials available for recycling, which in turn creates a more predictable, high quality waste stream. This provides a strong incentive for investment and innovation in sorting and recycling technologies, which creates green economic growth.

Setting a national collection or recycling target for beverage cartons will ensure meeting the legal requirement to collect all packaging and will contribute to meeting the ambitious recycling targets. In addition, consumers expect all packaging to be collected for recycling.

The beverage carton recycling rate will continue to increase thanks to the legal requirement for Member States to collect separately all packaging and thanks to the industry’s commitment to support recycling.

Can you provide some additional information around the use of certain fibres? Why is it important whether certain fibres (virgin vs. recycled) are used?

Beverage cartons are made from fresh fibres that provide the strength and quality required to ensure their functionality. These fresh fibres are welcomed by recyclers who recognize the value in such secondary raw materials.

The use of recycled fibres in the beverage carton sector (i.e. using the recycled material from used beverage cartons in the manufacture of a new one) is not recommendable in terms of environmental impacts. Due to the specific supply chain of our industry it would lead to increased emissions and an increase in resource use. Recycled fibres (e.g. from the beverage carton) can best deploy their potential to reduce environmental impacts and particularly greenhouse gas emissions when used in the manufacture of other paper packaging products as part of a sectoral closed loop. This is because proportionately more recycled fibres are needed to achieve the same functionality of a carton package made from fresh fibres. Increased package weight would, in turn, lead to decreased resource efficiency and an increase in carbon emissions during transport.

Can you please provide a brief summary of the life-cycle assessment (LCA) approach?

The LCA is a methodology based on international standards to measure and compare the environmental impacts of products or service from cradle to grave. Environmental impacts typically assessed by the LCA cover between 12 to 18 impact categories relating to impacts on climate change, ecosystems, human health and natural resources.

How do beverage cartons demonstrate their low carbon footprint?

The beverage carton industry recognises and uses the LCA to measure and assess all relevant environmental impacts of the beverage carton compared to existing packaging alternatives. The impact on climate – measured as Global Warming Potential (GWP) in CO2-equivalents is a relevant impact indicator used within LCA. This Carbon Footprint typically is smaller compared to alternative packaging solutions due to the resource efficiency of the BC system and the high share of renewable raw materials.

What is the square and circular campaign? Who is behind it?

The square and circular campaign, launched by the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE), aims at informing consumers and decision makers about the recyclability of beverage cartons. It also calls on the European Commission to consider renewables as a key to unlocking the circular economy.

The campaign calls on Member States to introduce a target for the collection or recycling rates of beverage cartons. As Member States are in the process of developing measures to implement the Waste Framework Directive, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive and, in due course, the Single-Use Plastics Directive, it is the right time to adopt such a target.

Have more questions? See here for additional information.