New study shows that beverage cartons are far from reaching circularity

The European legislation on recycling statistics is evolving in order to report recycling rates closer to the rates of material actually recycled. Before 2020, the recycling rates included incineration, which was misleading. The new method of reporting is now counting the quantities of material at the start of the recycling operation as recycled.
Beverage Cartons 2
The European legislation on recycling statistics is evolving in order to report recycling rates closer to the rates of material actually recycled. Before 2020, the recycling rates included incineration, which was misleading. The new method of reporting is now counting the quantities of material at the start of the recycling operation as recycled. The loss of material during the operation will be reported as recycled (1) even if it should not be considered as such.
The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment reports that 51% of EU beverage cartons are sent to recycling (2) using the old reporting method. New research by Eunomia Research & Consulting (3), commissioned by Zero Waste Europe, has revealed that the actual beverage carton recycling rate in four European countries is far below what is currently being reported. This report estimates that only 17.8% of beverage cartons are recycled in Sweden (4).

What is a beverage carton?

A beverage carton (5) is an example of a composite packaging. The average beverage carton composition is 72,5% cardboard, 24% plastic polymer and 3,5% aluminium. This composition makes its recycling more complex than regular cartons because the different materials have to be separated.

Beverage Cartons

Collection

In Sweden, the beverage cartons are collected with cardboard and paper and are then separated at paper mills. In Germany where beverage cartons are not mixed with paper or cardboard, the recorded collection rate is two times higher than in Sweden (87,4% compared to 40,1%). The collection rates are in fact even lower (34,75%) as foreign materials, moistures and dirt are still part of the quantities measured.

Flow Beverage Cartons Sweden Flow of beverage cartons in Sweden (6)

Recycling

According to Naturvårdsverket, the only mill able to manage beverage cartons in Sweden is located in Fiskeby. The beverage cartons are shredded and sent to the pulping phase. The cartons are washed intensively with water at low temperature for 20 minutes in order to separate the paperboard from the aluminium and polyethylene layers. The paperboard fibre pulp then goes through a filtering process to remove impurities. The aluminium-polymer parts are sent to incineration, as there is a lack of economic viability for specialist plants that can separate and recycle the two materials.

 

The paper quantities entering the pulping operation will be reported as recycled to European institutions (21,96%). The loss of fibre during the pulping process is not taken into account. The loss of fiber during the pulping process is estimated at 20%. The new recycling statistics will thus still be overestimated compared to the actual quantities recycled (17,8%).

Reprocessing

The paper fibers are pressed together and are made into new cardboard sheets. These sheets are then rolled and sold to packaging producers, becoming new paper packaging. The paper fibers can go through this cycle up to seven times (7). However, the recycled fibers cannot be used in the manufacturing of new beverage cartons.

 

Indeed, beverage cartons require stark, long new fibers in order to meet desired properties in the carton. At the same time, beverage cartons are processed together with many other different types of paper packaging, including glue/adhesives and inks used for packaging. The chemicals in the glue and inks contaminate the recycling process and in turn the recycled fibers. According to the recommendations used by packaging producers, when it comes to recycled paper in contact with food, only cleaned paper can be used and only for special foods. Fat food or food containing liquids should not be in direct contact with recycled fibers. In other words, beverage cartons cannot be made of recycled fibers but require the use of primary pulp.


To sum up, recycled fibers are used in cardboard applications such as cornflake boxes, pasta packaging and paper bags. As beverage cartons are not recycled into new beverage cartons, we can say that they are instead downcycled.

Conclusion and recommendations

The flow of beverage cartons is at the moment not circular. Indeed in Sweden, a large part (82.2%) of the beverage cartons is incinerated while only 17.8% is recycled, or we should rather say downcycled, to applications such as corrugated cardboard boxes.

 

The flow is non-circular because there are high losses in collection and sorting systems as well as a lack of ability to use the recycled material leading to a dependence on virgin materials to produce new beverage cartons. The manufacturing of beverage cartons requires tree felling, threatening in turn the ability of forests to store carbon dioxide and limit global warming.

 

To conclude, in this article we have seen that there are flaws in the current method for calculating recycling rates. Although the European legislation has evolved, losses in the recycling process will still be counted as recycled in national and official statistics. Consequently, Life-cycle Assessments (LCA) are biased because they are based on wrong statistics, which in turn hampers our society from reaching circularity.

 

 

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(1) "Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2019/665 of 17 April 2019 amending Decision 2005/270/EC establishing the formats relating to the database system pursuant to European Parliament and Council Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste" https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:32019D0665.

(2) "EU beverage carton recycling rate hits 51%", Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK), http://www.ace-uk.co.uk/media-centre/news/eu-beverage-carton-recycling-rate-hits-51/

(3) Eunomia, https://www.eunomia.co.uk/ 

(4) "Recycling of multilayer composite packaging: the beverage carton" https://zerowasteeurope.eu/library/recycling-of-multilayer-composite-packaging-the-beverage-carton/

(5) "What is a beverage carton?", Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK), http://www.ace-uk.co.uk/about-cartons/what-are-beverage-cartons

(6) "Carton flow - Sweden", Zero Waste Europe,  https://zerowasteeurope.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/TETRA-FLOW_sweden-scaled.jpg

(7) “En pappersförpacknings återvinningsresa”, Förpacknings- och tidningsinsamlingen, https://www.ftiab.se/2495.html

(8) “XXXVI. Paper and board for food contact”, Federal Institute for Risk Assessment,  https://bfr.ble.de/kse/faces/resources/pdf/360-english.pdf;jsessionid=903EC2E43C08CF4D8146CB453BDF7C73

(9) “Returpapper och kartong”, Livsmedelsverket, https://www.livsmedelsverket.se/livsmedel-och-innehall/tillagning-hygien-forpackningar/forpackningar/returpapper-och-kartong