Cartons have lower footprint than the rest

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A new report shows Tetra Pak cartons have a lower carbon footprint than all other packaging used for the same products, including glass, aluminium, and plastic.

Lower carbon footprint: Tetra-Pak
Lower carbon footprint: Tetra-Pak

Glass has the highest carbon footprint across all sizes and categories assessed, with values five to 12 times higher than cartons, and aluminium cans with zero recycled content are comparable to glass.

Cans made with 70 per cent recycled aluminium have approximately double the carbon footprint of cartons, while plastic bottles made with no recycled content have a considerably higher carbon footprint than cartons and roughly double the footprint of recycled plastic.

Lightweight plastic bottles and bottles made with 100 per cent recycled plastic have similar carbon footprint to cartons.

The report conducted on behalf of Tetra Pak in Australia and New Zealand was independently peer-reviewed. It suggests cartons are the consumer packaging solution with the lowest carbon footprint for beverages and food.

The report used a life cycle assessment (LCA) technique, which is used to assess the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of the life cycle of a product, process or service. The study compared the environmental performance of beverage and food cartons to other packaging choices available on the Australian and New Zealand markets in 2019/20. The study included packaging ranging from 200ml to 2L in various categories: long-life milk, fresh milk, juice, water, and food.

On average, cartons were found to have the lowest – or equal lowest – carbon footprint of all packaging included in the study across all sizes and product categories considered. This is due to a combination of their light weight, the relatively low impact of paperboard per kilogram, and the biogenic carbon (emissions from natural sources) sequestered and stored in the paperboard during tree growth (which may only be partly re-released if the product ends up in landfill).

Pouches (like yoghurt pouches) and lightweight bottles made from 100 per cent recycled plastic have a similar carbon footprint to cartons. New or virgin PET (a type of plastic) has a considerably higher carbon footprint than cartons, and roughly double the footprint of recycled plastic.

Glass, however, was found to have the highest carbon footprint across all sizes and categories, with values five to 12 times higher than cartons. Aluminium cans with zero recycled content were comparable to glass, and while much improvement was seen when the cans were made with 70 per cent recycled content. But even those cans had a significantly higher carbon footprint than cartons.

The study made conservative assumptions, such as recycled plastic bottles being manufactured from recycled plastic granulate that is captured and recycled within Australia and New Zealand. Where there was uncertainty, a choice was made in a way that would favour alternative packaging over cartons.

The study found cartons have the lowest or equal lowest carbon footprint in nearly all scenarios of all packaging assessed, regardless of whether they are recycled or end up in landfill.

The study considered the end of life of every type of packaging assessed, but for beverage and food cartons, it measured the share of cartons sent to landfill versus the share sent to recycling, and the proportion of recycling that occurs in Australia.

It also looked at what happens to the carton if it ends up in landfill. This includes how much of the carbon stored in the paperboard from the tree-growth phrase is released into the air as carbon dioxide and methane, and the likelihood of those greenhouse gas emissions being prevented from entering the atmosphere through gas capture systems operating at some landfills.

If the worst-case scenario for cartons at end of life is applied (100 per cent of cartons end up in landfill, zero per cent of landfill greenhouse gases are captured, 50 per cent of the paper in the carton degrades), pouches, lightweight plastic bottles (with or without recycled content) and bottles made with recycled plastic can have a lower carbon footprint than cartons.

However, this is not the most likely scenario and cartons always have a lower carbon footprint than glass and virgin plastic, no matter which end-of-life assumptions are applied.

China’s National Sword policy in 2018 set strict contamination limits on recyclables, effectively ceasing the export of Australian recycled materials to China. This provides Australia with the opportunity to create a thriving domestic recycling industry.

Tetra Pak is currently negotiating establishing three dedicated carton recycling plants in Australia and New Zealand. A dedicated local recycling system for our food and beverage cartons would improve their environmental impact even further, as well as provide more green jobs.

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