Packaging is responsible for 40 percent of the global plastic production. The food industry is now rapidly replacing fossil-based plastics with renewable and recycled solutions, and Carlsberg, Löfbergs and Arla are among the pioneers.

In the Arta Plast factory in Tyresö, Sweden, custom-made machines gobble up piece after piece of cardboard in a rhythmical, synchronized movement. The pieces are twisted into cups. A strand of polymer is automatically dispensed to reinforce the structure.

In a little while, these cups will have their fifteen minutes of fame as they gather on the shelves of grocery stores and in people’s refrigerators – but afterwards, once the creme fraiche they were made to carry to safety is finished and all but forgotten, their most defining hour still awaits them; these are recyclable cups, and they impact the climate half as much as the regular ones.

The Arla cup, developed by the packaging manufacturer Arta Plast, is cutting climate impact in half. “Consumers that choose our new paper cup can rest assure that taste is preserved, with reduced environmental impact”, says Elisabeth Hedenljung, Brand Manager at Arla. Photo: Arla.

We are looking at the FiberCup, a unique innovation released on the market last year by Arla as the company’s new dairy container. More than half of the cup is made from renewable and recyclable pulp fiber,  the lid is made from recycled PET plastic, and it substitutes polystyrene packaging.

”Our goal is to make all our packaging renewable and reduce our environmental impact. We are very proud of our new creme fraiche container with a higher percentage of renewable materials, and completely without aluminium”, says Anna-Karin Modin Edman, Sustainability Manager, Arla.

The group’s target is to reach 100 percent recyclable packaging by 2020, and in the last five years, Arla Sweden’s packaging reforms have reduced the greenhouse gas emissions by 2060 tonnes. In the last couple of years, Arla has also saved 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide by replacing caps with renewable plastic, and removing a layer of material from a carton for organic dairy reduced its climate impact by 24 percent. These containers were developed by Tetra Pak, the packaging pioneer that deployed the world’s first bio-based caps in 2011 and the first liquid container with bio-based cap, neck and barrier in 2014. According to life cycle assessments, these cartons have lower climate impact than traditional ones without cap.

A packaging pioneer takes the next step

”We are always going to focus on climate- and environment efficient packaging. Many times, others have followed suit, which is a good thing. We like to be the first adopter of eco-friendly solutions rather than the last”, says Eva Eriksson, Quality and Sustainability Manager at Löfbergs. Photo: Löfbergs.

The coffee roaster Löfbergs is replacing plastics too, currently switching fossil plastic packaging for green, plant-based polyetylene. 25 years ago, the company was the first european roaster to introduce aluminium-free coffee packaging.

”Taking responsibility for people and the environment has always been important to us; the work extends over the entire value chain. We take responsibility from bean to cup”, says Eva Eriksson, Quality and Sustainability Manager at Löfbergs. ”Most of the climate impact from coffee happens in the farming countries, so that is where we direct most of our efforts. But we are taking other measures as well, like improving our packaging.”

Eva emphasizes the importance of circular material flows. Renewable isn’t good enough to achieve sustainable practices, she says, materials must be recyclable, too:

”It is a challenge, since plastic laminates are assembled from layers with different properties. Polyetylene made from sugar cane residue is what is available on the market today; the first step for us is to replace all fossil polyetylene with renewable polyetylene with identical material properties.”

One year into development, the new packaging is now in production. This first stage reduces the climate footprint by 34 percent –but reducing the plastic content is a gradual process:

”One reason is that we have to make process adjustments. But another is that plant-based alternatives aren’t available for some layers in the packaging; we are collaborating with our suppliers to find a remedy. Our goal is that all our packaging on every market will contain plastic from renewable raw materials by 2020. By 2030, non-renewable and non-recyclable materials will be phased out. Our hope is that Swedish forest-based plastics and additional plant-based plastic varieties compatible with materials recycling will emerge”, Eva Eriksson says.

The trade-off between materials and food waste

While coffee is especially sensitive to air and light exposure, Löfbergs share a difficult trade-off decision with the entire food industry. Generally, the packaging represents a small percentage of the climate footprint compared to the content and the transports; adopting a more climate-efficient material at the expense of content durability would make the improvement null and void. Sometimes, the plastic provides substantial benefits – for instance, a cucumber sealed in plastic may last two weeks longer.

”The plastic cover on minced meat is another example. Minced meat is a resource intensive commodity, and it is important to protect that investment”, says the packaging researcher Annika Olsson in a presentation held at the Lund Sustainability Week. She stresses that packaging should first of all be deliberate, with the proper materials chosen for their intended purpose.

That requires a certain amount of review and integration. There is consensus in the Swedish food industry that a successful transformation depends on cooperation along the value chain, from farm to store. The trade and commerce sector’s goal is for all plastic packaging on the Swedish market to be either renewable or recycled by 2030, and material recyclable by 2022.

”In order to achieve our goals, sustainability has to be integrated in the value chain. We can not do this on our own; much of the progress we have made can be ascribed to cooperation with customers and partners”, Ted Akiskalos, CEO of Carlsberg Sweden, concurs. The company has just released a new product design with sustainability as a priority.

Carlsberg glues away their plastic

Along with the new design, a number of green innovations are unveiled: a Cradle-to-Cradle certified ink on labels, recycled plastic wrapping around six packs, and a pioneering technology called The Snap Pack. In the Snap Pack six pack, the plastic wrapping used around the cans is replaced by a dot of glue that holds them together.

Carlsberg Sweden’s Falkenberg brewery will be the first to make six pack wrapping from 100 percent renewable plastic, reducing climate footprint by up to 60 percent. The glue assembly is a world first for Carlsberg, and it will reduce the amount of plastic waste globally by more than 1200 tonnes a year, according to the company’s estimate.

The product line is now being rolled out on the Nordic market, and the snap pack will be launched around the world in 2019. Carlsberg is also preparing to pilot test the world’s first biodegradable wood fiber bottle, the Carlsberg Green Fiber Bottle, on a chosen market sometime during 2018. (Read more about the bottle in the article ”Renewable resources build the bioeconomy”).

”We want to be the leading brewery in terms of sustainable practices; our definition is to be the most responsible brewery in Sweden, and also to be perceived as such”, says Ted Akiskalos: ”It is a perpetual effort, and there are always new lessons to learn”.

The article was published in September 2018.