The future of sustainable food packaging

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Alex Henriksen, Managing Director, Tetra Pak North Europe explores the future of sustainable packaging and the work Tetra Pak are doing to support a circular economy.

Recent research from the UN suggests that as much as 931 million tonnes of food is wasted globally and much of this happens before products even hit the shelves, with food waste from manufacturers and the retail industry accounting for as much as 1.8 million tonnes in the UK alone.

Such a high degree of wastage is compounding the pressures placed on current food systems and reducing the ability to deliver safe and nutritious food to those who most need it.

As global populations continue to rise, and millions struggle with access to food, it’s increasingly important for manufacturers to consider how they can strengthen food systems by improving food safety, extending shelf-life and ultimately reducing food waste.

It’s increasingly important for manufacturers to consider how they can strengthen food systems by improving food safety.

Through the development and adoption of high-performance packaging to deliver safe and nutritious food, businesses can play an important role in improving the resilience of food systems globally and decreasing food waste. In doing so, however, packaging manufacturers must consider their environmental obligations and continue to limit the impact they have on the world’s finite resources.

One way to achieve this is by considering the entire lifecycle of packaging, from production to end-of-life and adopting base materials that are renewable and recyclable themselves.

This helps to promote and support a circular economy – a method of consumption which prioritises the reuse and recycling of materials within the value chain for as long as possible, reducing waste and our reliance on the planet’s resources.

It’s an area of focus for Tetra Pak as we continue our mission of creating the world’s most sustainable packaging.

Consider the origin of materials

To support the development of a circular economy, while improving food system resilience, packaging manufacturers must increase their adoption of renewable materials that have been sourced responsibly.

To do this requires a detailed understanding of how base materials are produced and the impact this can have on the environment – whether paperboard, polymer, aluminium or glass. Ultimately, the decarbonisation of food chains relies on each material being predominantly reusable and recyclable.

Alongside this, it remains crucial that food and drink packaging continues to keep produce safe for the consumer; with a shelf life that is as long as possible to reduce spoilage and waste and ensure food and drink remain nutritious and fresh.

This requires investment in innovation to develop new types of packaging that have a reduced carbon impact while maintaining long shelf life. An example of this is the development of an industry-first fibre-based barrier, that Tetra Pak recently tested to replace the aluminium layer in ambient packages.

Ensuring recyclability


Across the industry, many manufacturers and producers are taking great steps to champion innovation, to improve the recyclability of packaging. However, without higher recycling rates and sufficient infrastructure in place to support recycling efforts, we can only go so far in the creation of a circular economy and a strong, decarbonised food system.

Therefore, manufacturers and producers need to engage and collaborate closely with governments, industry partners and consumers, both in the UK and beyond, to ensure that recycling schemes include the full gamut of packaging options, such as cartons.

Failure to do so can lead to significant consumer confusion and even a plateau in recycling rates – the former has been seen with the UK’s recent Deposit Return Scheme (DRS).

Our research from 2022 suggests that more than half (58%) of consumers didn’t understand what the DRS entails, and almost three-fifths (59%) agreed that the scheme would cause confusion if it wasn’t consistent with existing household recycling collections.

If we hope to improve recycling rates, the introduction of new recycling legislation and schemes needs to be managed carefully. The legislation and schemes should aim to reduce confusion for consumers and ensure full inclusivity for a range of packaging options.

Packaging systems of the future


Food systems become more sustainable and resilient when manufacturers adopt approaches that consider every stage of a package’s life cycle – from the initial selection of base materials, all the way through to how these are managed at their end-of-life.

This can only be achieved through close and sustained collaboration across a full ecosystem of stakeholders, continued investment in packaging innovation and the introduction of new recycling schemes that effectively improve recycling rates.

By embracing collaboration, we can achieve our most pressing decarbonisation goals and sustain innovation around renewable and recyclable packaging options. This will ultimately help to keep food fresh, reduce waste and improve supply chain efficiencies, supporting the delivery of safe and affordable food to everyone.

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