Which beverage packaging would Greta choose?

© Pixabay.de / User: Jeremy Smith

Glass or PET, can or carton, one-way or reusable? With Fridays for Future driving change, sustainable beverage packaging is increasingly shifting into focus. The “right” way is highly disputed among experts.

Heated discussions have surrounded the question of ecologically advantageous beverage packaging for years. Considering the 9.5 million tons of plastic waste that end up in our oceans, the discussion is becoming more and more passionate as emotions dominate. The PET bottle has fallen out of favor, although, especially in Germany and thanks to the outstanding deposit system, bottles virtually never land in the sea; not even single-use containers. According to a study conducted last year by the Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (GVM), 97% of one-way, deposit-scheme PET bottles are recycled.

This is just one example demonstrating that facts are ignored in the discourse surrounding beverage packaging. Understanding the eco-balance requires clarity of thought. It involves highly complex topics such as material requirements; energy used in production, during transport and recycling; and the percentage of recycled material used in new bottles. This is why environment and sustainability expert Benedikt Kauertz, who heads this topic at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (Ifeu), warns against “demonizing a specific packaging type across the board.” He notes that the facts have been simplified beyond recognition in the public debate.

Glass or PET: It all depends on the transport distance

If you look at the facts, the vilified PET bottles actually have a relatively good track record in terms of their eco-balance. They weigh very little, which lowers their carbon footprint during transport. Where transport involves long distances, they are, therefore, more environmentally compatible than heavy glass bottles. In certain sectors, recent findings show that this is even true for one-way PET bottles compared to reusable glass bottles. Over ten years ago, when the last life-cycle assessment was conducted, this was not the case, notes Kauertz. Since then, the public mantra has been “reusables take precedent,” even though this generalization is not supported by today’s scientific data.

Bei Getränkeverpackungen vergleicht man die Umweltwirkungen – von der Herstellung über die Verarbeitung bis hin zum Transport. Der Inhalt wird dabei nicht berücksichtigt, die Verwertung jedoch schon. Im Vergleich stehen schlussendlich die Kennzahlen verschiedener Wirkungskategorien, wie z.B. Energieverbrauch, Treibhausgasfreisetzung, Ressourcenbeanspruchung oder Versauerung.

This does not only apply to the opinions held by the general public. Politicians still use this outdated data as a guide, too. The fact that reusables are favored by politicians in this country does not automatically prove the ecological superiority of this concept in all areas, criticizes Claudia Bierth, European Sustainability Manager at Ball Packaging, the can manufacturer and drinktec exhibitor. If your arguments are based on normative political viewpoints, and not on facts, this ought to be clearly stated. The basic formula “reusable is good, one-way is bad” does not take into account to the complex reality, says Bierth.

The ecological footprint of the can has improved significantly

Today, cans are far more environmentally friendly than in the past, according to a recent eco-balance report published earlier this year by the Metal Packaging Europe organization. The assessment found that compared to data from 2006, the can carbon footprint has shrunk by 31%. This improvement is attributable to better production processes, cans weighing less and a higher recycling rate. Aluminum can be recycled over and over again without losing its material properties, which makes beverage cans “the perfect product for a circular economy.”

Another less ubiquitous beverage packaging – used mainly for juice and milk – has also entered the discussion recently: the carton. In a life-cycle assessment, published by the Ifeu Institute, the carton outperformed one-way PET packaging and came in on par with reusable glass bottles. However, in mid-September, the Institute was forced to revise its August published results because the transport distances for reusables had inadvertently been set too high.

These results had not yet been widely publicized, but for reusable proponents, it is too late. This inaccurate study is out there, says an annoyed Dirk Reinsberg, Managing Director of the Federal Association of German Beverage Wholesalers. It will be difficult to “erase the incorrect results from the public memory.” The future of the recycling system is an existential question for wholesalers because major sections of the industry depend on selling beverages in recyclable beverage packaging – including the logistics experts in the handling of empties.

© Pixabay.de / User: Skeeze

What about “prevention before recycling?”

Currently the whole system is a cause for concern as the percentage of recycled packaging has been declining steadily in recent years and is now at only 43%. Across Europe the focus is on “prevention before recycling.” After years of political wrangling, German legislators included a 70% recycling rate in the packaging law that went into place at the beginning of 2019. This must be achieved by 2021. How to implement this is not clear. The rise of customized brand bottles which companies are increasingly using as a marketing tool is an additional burden to the system. Unlike the practical pool bottles, these customized beverage bottles have to be returned to the manufacturer to be refilled. This development has given the one-way packaging sector a boost.

As usual, the crux of the matter – which container is best for the environment – takes a back seat to the economic interests of the beverage filling companies, the packaging manufacturers, and last but not least, wholesalers. What beverage packaging will look like in the future depends largely on how politicians handle the issue.

drinktec 2021 offers a variety of beverage packaging options

Glass or PET, can or carton, one-way or reusable? Anyone who is interested in the technical side of beverage packaging will find the right forum at the world’s leading trade fair: drinktec. Here, exhibitors from around the world will present their solutions. The next drinktec will be held from September 13-17, 2021, at the Munich trade fair. Do you have innovative options for sustainable beverage packaging that you’d like to present to an international audience? Join us at the next drinktec.

Barbara Rademacher

Barbara Rademacher

Barbara Rademacher worked for 18 years as an editor for a renowned trade magazine for the beverage industry. In July 2018, the trained journalist and her long-time colleague Dirk Omlor founded a text and consulting office with the central project getraenke-news.de.