The sourcing and production of PET and carton are harming the planet, but the story is different for recycling. Producing plastic material is the most GHG emitting compared to carton and other packaging materials. For example, according to IFEU Institute Heidelberg, PET required for 1000L of UHT milk emits 155 kg vs. 85 kg of CO2 equivalent for beverage cartons.
Plastic has a finite lifespan. Every time plastic is recycled, the polymer chain grows shorter, and its quality decreases. One can recycle the same piece of plastic approximately 2-3 times before they can no longer re-use it. PET that has a longer lifespan was introduced as a solution to this issue, but when PET bottles are recycled, the vast majority goes into other products such as carpets and clothing. Making a new bottle is more complicated. The plastic flakes must be sterilized and tested to meet food-grade standards. Also, using rPET is often more expensive than using virgin material, especially when oil prices are low. One should also note that microplastic contamination found in many liquids and food such as bottled water, seafood, salt comes from plastic production and recycling processes water contamination.
Carton sleeves may be produced from up to 100% recyclable material, which mitigates deforestation. In addition, paper fiber from beverage cartons is highly desirable as it consists of virgin fibers that can be recycled up to 7 times. Recycling technology also exists to recycle plastic caps/layers and aluminum compounds used in carton sleeves.
Beverage plastic and carton still face a common problem. The number of bottles and sleeves that enter the recycling system is very volatile and depends on countries or even localities' available recycling infrastructure and policies. In addition, specific recycling plants are needed for each of the different containers/bottles, i.e., PET, HDPE, aluminum cans, and cartons. Thus, putting your PET bottles in separate trash, which most of the developed countries residents do, does not guarantee that these will be recycled as there is a massive market for plastic export/import, and countries like the US, Japan, and Germany top up the ranking for plastic waste exports.
In the meantime, the beverage carton recycling rate in Europe, which has the highest recycling rate worldwide, has been steadily increasing over the past two decades. Recycling rates, however, differ across the EU member states (e.g., Germany: 76%, France: 57%), and some are also top importers of recovered paper from other countries.
Changing regulations: In 2020, China, one of the largest plastic importers, banned imports of solid waste, which will lead exporting countries to increasingly build recycling plants for such waste.
A new EU CO2 proposal was recently introduced to decrease forest outtake, which could be an upside for recycled carton use. However, this move would increase demand for recycled cartons and could lead to increased pricing.
While it is hard to pick sides between cutting trees and using fossil fuels to produce beverage cartons or PET bottles, it is safe to say that carton recycling is less harmful to the environment and the human body. In the end, the disruptive element in the recycling story is the availability of recycling infrastructure for carton sleeves. Carton sleeves producers have acknowledged this is crucial to their growth prospects and have started collaborating in recent years to co-invest in recycling plants themselves. Such was possible without any governmental subsidies, which we think often do more harm than good, as those producers operate in an oligopolistic environment and are sure to make a profit out of their "not-for-profit" investment… but let's leave it to that as the monopoly/oligopoly vs. perfect competition is a different story that we will tell another time.
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