Can the aluminum traditionally used as a barrier layer in food carton packages be safely replaced by a more environmentally friendly barrier? According to Tetra Pak, it looks as if that may well be the case.
The company first spent 15 months on the commercial technology validation of the use of a polymer-based barrier to replace the aluminum layer, and is now moving forward with tests using a fiber-based barrier, a first within food carton packages distributed under ambient conditions, said Tetra Pak.
The development of the fiber-based barrier is a response to the expectations of the end market, said Tetra Pak. Consumer research from around the world revealed that approximately 40 percent of consumers would be more motivated to sort for recycling if packages were made entirely from paperboard and had no plastic or aluminum.
The aluminum layer that is currently used in food carton packages is important for ensuring food safety. However, although thinner than a human hair, it contributes to a third of the greenhouse gas emissions linked to base materials used by Tetra Pak.
Seeking to reduce the climate impact of this type of packaging, Tetra Pak launched a validation program in late 2020 in Japan of a polymer-based barrier layer, which helped to provide insight into the value chain implications of the change and to quantify the carbon footprint reduction.
It also confirmed adequate oxygen protection for vegetable juice, while enabling increased recycling rates in a country where recyclers favor aluminum-free cartons.
The company is now testing a new fiber-based barrier, in close collaboration with some of its customers. A first pilot batch of single serve packs featuring this industry-first material are currently on shelf for a commercial consumer test, with further technology validation scheduled later in 2022.
“Early results suggest that the package with a fiber-based barrier will offer substantial CO2 reduction when compared to traditional aseptic cartons, together with comparable shelf life and food protection properties,” said Gilles Tisserand, vice president climate and biodiversity at Tetra Pak, “We believe this development will therefore act as a breakthrough in reducing climate impact. In addition, cartons with higher paper content are also more attractive for paper mills; thus, this concept presents clear potential for realizing a low carbon circular economy for packaging.”
Tetra Pak is investing 100 million euros ($107 million) per year over the next five to 10 years to further enhance the environmental profile of food cartons, including the research and development of packages that are made with a simplified material structure and increased renewable content, added Eva Gustavsson, vice president materials and package, Tetra Pak. To that end, the company will be collaborating not just with customers and suppliers, but also with an ecosystem of start-ups, universities and tech companies, she said, "providing us access to cutting edge competences, technologies and manufacturing facilities."
“There is a long journey ahead of us, but with the support of our partners and a strong determination to achieve our sustainability and food safety ambitions, we are well on our way.”