A rise in consumer awareness and demand for sustainable food and beverage packaging has led to a parallel rise in the creation of various types of more environmentally-friendly packs worldwide, but mostly concentrated in more developed western markets such as the EU and United States.
In the Asia Pacific region and especially in Asia, it is well-known that humid climate conditions prevent straightforward new sustainable packaging solutions that may work well in other countries – but according to Tetra Pak APAC Vice President of Sustainability Jaideep Gokhale, the issues here go far beyond that.
“In this region, there are some countries which are more advanced [in terms of sustainability thinking] and mimic the EU and US such as Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan and South Korea - but there are other parts of the region which show stark dissimilarities such as China, India and ASEAN,” Gokhale told FoodNavigator-Asia whilst discussing the firm’s 2021 Sustainability Report.
“In some places, it is very natural to pick up a package and throw it away in a bin, but in some places it is not, and there is an educational process there that needs to be handled well [by the industry] instead of just sitting back and saying people will never learn or it will never work.
“Segregation of waste is also quite low in many parts of Asia, despite it being taken for granted in many places, and there is also a lack of legislative standardization where different countries are doing different things, unlike in the EU.”
According to Gokhale, the solution here is to address the issues country by country, and not assume that the same solution applies everywhere. In some circumstances, addressing food waste issues may be a more pressing sustainability concern than packaging.
“There is no one size fits all solution to this – for example, a container deposit scheme may work wonders in some markets but not others, especially ones where even basic infrastructure is not developed. Solutions need to be local for local,” he said.
“So in some places, we’ve moved to address food waste issues first. In Taiwan for example, we have worked with one of the largest food firms I-Mei on its soybean milk products, where we collaborated to innovate a whole bean processing solution that converts the by product okara, which is usually wasted, into a fibre rich product that is integrated into the drink itself.
“This not only reduces the waste produced and create a circular solution, but also allowed I-Mei to position the product as a fibre-dense, higher value beverage on-shelf.”
Similarly in Indonesia, Tetra Pak developed a process for smallholder farmers to maintain the flavour of coconut water whilst also converting the other parts of the coconuts into higher value products such as coconut cream, coconut oil, and coconut milk.
“The aim of our work in this area of processing is to transform previously unwanted materials thought of as byproducts or food waste into high value, more premium products such that these can be sold for higher prices to help increase incomes whilst reducing waste [as a] long term, sustainable solution,” he said.
Recycling is not enough
According to the Tetra Pak report, 50 billion cartons were recycled in 2020 across over 170 recycling facilities worldwide – but the majority are unfortunately not located in Asia.
“In the APAC region, about one out of five cartons are recycled, and there are just about over 50 recycling facilities here out of over 170 globally,” said Gokhale.
“We are trying to get in at least one more recycling factory monthly [but] it is clear that at this point in time, recycling is not enough to be a full-scale solution. That is why Tetra Pak is working on another solution, which is the development of what we call the ‘world’s most sustainable food package’.
“There is an investment of EUR100mn (US$118mn) yearly going into the development of this, and the objective is to create a fully renewable, fully recyclable, completely carbon-neutral package. At present, most Tetra Pak packages on average are 70% paper based and recyclable, so we want to increase this to as close to 100% as possible.”
That said, with the world’s attention on recycling and recyclability at the moment, Gokhale added that this is still a big area of focus.
“We are determined to change the 30% portion of Tetra Pak packaging which is non-paper and made of aluminium or polymers hence not recyclable – moving forward we want our cartons to fit completely in the paper stream of recycling instead of needing to be separated so consumers can just put these into the paper bin without thinking,” he said.
“The aluminium needs to be removed as it is an intensive material to make and emits carbon too, so as a first step we will work to replace this with a polymer base, then ultimately make this a non-fossil-derived barrier.”
Moving forward, Gokhale believes that the future of sustainable packaging in the region is bright and that legislators are slowly recognizing the need for this.
“Different countries are moving at different speeds – Australia and New Zealand are obviously faster with smaller and less dense populations so more control is possible, but the challenges are very different in places like India or Indonesia or China where a lot more packaging is used and disposed of,” he said.
“Eventually though, it is clear that the regulations in this area need more development, and Tetra Pak welcomes Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in this as long as it is fair, just and equitable such that things are well-mandated and the targets are well-enforced.”