LCA Packaging Plastic Battle

Which is Better for the Environment: Carton, Glass or PET?

“Benchmark” life-cycle assessment identifies eco-benefits of carton over glass and PET alternatives.

A state-of-the-art environmental lifecycle assessment (LCA) has found that single-use beverage cartons compare favorably with reusable glass bottles – and outperform single-use PET bottles – across the fresh milk, juice and UHT milk market segments. The results of the critically reviewed LCA study are based on an in-depth analysis of the German beverage packaging market, with expert review and oversight by the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA).

The conclusions are globally relevant and support the findings of previous critically reviewed LCAs that beverage cartons offer environmental advantages to alternative forms of packaging for liquid dairy and juices, carton packaging giant SIG has said.

“The latest LCA confirms once again that beverage cartons are the preferred environmental choice for milk and juice packaging,” SIG Chief Executive Officer Rolf Stangl notes. “The high proportion of renewable content in single-use beverage cartons puts them on a par even with glass bottles that can be reused multiple times. These results are based on standard beverage cartons that are around 75 percent renewable and SIG already offers customers innovative products that are linked to up to 100 percent renewable content.”

Rigorous assessments for informed decision-making

SIG is a member of the German Beverage Carton Association FKN, which commissioned the LCA study to support informed decisions on packaging by food producers, consumers and policymakers based on a robust scientific comparison of environmental impact.

The LCA was conducted by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU) in accordance with the recognized ISO 14040/44 international standards. It is the first study to meet the new requirements stipulated by UBA for beverage packaging LCAs in Germany.

“The requirements reveal 12 impact categories according to latest science – three are related to the use of resources and land, nine related to emission aspects including climate change, eutrophication, acidification, human and ecotoxicity,” Dr. Christian Bauer, Sustainability Expert at SIG, tells PackagingInsights. “A clear instruction for interpretation is also provided in these requirements to ensure a balanced and factual communication of the results.”

The scope of this study is the market for UHT milk, fresh milk and juice in Germany, a market that is typically recognized for high recycling rates for single-use packaging and well-established reuse systems for glass-bottles, says Bauer.

“Within the study, all relevant recycling and disposal routes for the investigated systems are covered including the subsequent use of the recycled materials. Sensitivity analyses were used to understand the relevance of necessary assumptions on the conclusiveness of the results,” he adds.

Chemical recycling of polymers was not identified as a relevant disposal route within the scope of this study. Also, data availability in view of food waste occurring due to shelf-life differences between systems with similar functionality is limited and, therefore, these differences were not modeled in the study. “We believe this is a conservative approach given the outstanding barrier properties of the beverage carton system,” notes Bauer.

Environmental advantages of cartons confirmed

Reusable packaging options, such as glass bottles that are returned to food or beverage producers to be used again, are often assumed to be the best option for the environment. That is why reusable options, where available for a particular market, are used as the reference system for comparison.

Based on an in-depth analysis of all three market segments – fresh milk, juices and UHT milk – the beverage carton performs at least as well, or in the case of fresh milk, even better than reusable glass bottles. The latest study also confirms that both beverage cartons and reusable glass bottles outperform PET bottles for fresh milk, juice and UHT milk.

Cartons perform significantly better than the alternatives on climate change – the category given the highest ecological priority by the UBA. The climate impact results for cartons are 78 percent lower than reusable glass bottles for fresh milk, 37 percent lower than reusable glass bottles for fruit juices and 71 percent lower than PET bottles for UHT milk (for which no reusable options are available).

The high proportion of renewable material used to make beverage cartons – 75 percent on average – contributes to their strong environmental performance, together with their highly efficient design which reduces impacts from transport and distribution, SIG says. The favorable results are underpinned by the industry’s commitment to sourcing from responsibly-managed forests.

LCAs support responsible product innovation

LCA is fundamental to SIG’s approach to product responsibility and informs the focus of the company’s product innovation.

This latest study confirms the important contribution that renewable materials make to the environmental performance of beverage cartons and SIG is working to increase the proportion of renewable content in its packs. SIG’s EcoPlus pack is 82 percent renewable and its SIGNATURE PACK 100 is the only aseptic beverage carton to be linked to 100 percent forest-based materials, using an innovative mass balance approach.

Last month, SIG became “the first in the industry” to produce cartons with ASI-certified aluminum foil. A start-up brand from Unilever’s Future Platform – B-Better – is set to debut the ASI-certified cartons.

“This study is certainly a new benchmark for LCAs that compare beverage packaging options. “In particular, in a time when LCA is often perceived as delivering contradictory results, this study demonstrates how LCA can deliver and support a factual dialogue between society, policymaking and industry on packaging and the environment without irritating ‘ifs and buts,’” Bauer concludes.

SIG recently announced a €180 million (US$200 million) investment in a second production plant in Suzhou, China. With capacity utilization at the first plant reportedly “high and rising,” the second plant will help to facilitate the increasing demand for aseptic cartons across the Asia-Pacific region. The new plant at the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) is expected to be operational in early 2021 and will be situated close to the company’s existing production facility and Tech Centre.

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Published on packaginginsights.com and written by Joshua Poole

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