COP27: De-carbonisation – why packaging matters

Today is Decarbonisation Day at COP27. While high-level conversations continue at the event hosted in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, businesses and consumers can all make a difference when it comes to achieving net zero: contributing fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than they are responsible for removing.

Food waste is responsible for approximately 8-10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with an estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of food wasted every year.1 Working towards a more sustainable and secure food supply chain is one of the greatest and most pressing challenges we now face. That is why packaging matters.

Packaging can keep food and drink safe and fresh, helping to deliver products to customers as fresh as the day they were sourced and extending shelf life by weeks and even months. However, packaging itself can also be a source of GHG emissions and we need to think carefully about its entire lifecycle to properly assess its environmental credentials.

The UN estimates that over one million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute, and over half of all plastic products are thrown away after just one use2. Between 2000 and 2019 the annual production of plastics doubled from 234 million tonnes (Mt) to 460 Mt, with plastic waste more than doubling over the same period3. Given that plastics contribute an estimated 3.4% of global GHG emissions, generating 1.8 billion tonnes of GHG emissions in 2019, the challenge of decarbonisation has become significantly greater in recent years.

Yet when it comes to everyday beverages, such as milk, juice and water, alternatives to plastic bottles are readily available. For example, beverage cartons, which are based primarily on paperboard, generate fewer GHG emissions and have a lower carbon footprint. A recent Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) for fresh milk and juice packaging in North America found that cartons have a 32% smaller carbon footprint than HDPE bottles and 60% smaller than PET4. By choosing cartons consumers can support brands that have opted for more environmentally friendly packaging. These may seem like little changes, but by switching from PET or HDPE bottles to cartons on a daily basis for products such as milk, juice and water, they quickly add up and will contribute to a lower carbon footprint in the long run.

Businesses have an important role to play in ensuring consumers are empowered to make environmentally conscious choices. This starts with investing in innovations that maintain product quality and safety while delivering sustainability benefits. For example, recent innovations in packaging mean we can now make aseptic cartons, which are critical for extending the shelf life of products, without an aluminium layer, resulting in up to 50% lower carbon footprint than a standard aseptic carton5.

The next decade will be critical in mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. Being carbon neutral is not enough. Businesses also need to be committed to substantially reducing their own emissions and setting targets that support the halving of global emissions by 2030 and the achievement of net zero by 2050. This applies not only to their direct emissions (scope one), but also indirect emissions (scope two and three). Responsible sourcing is also essential, ensuring that renewable materials, paperboard and renewable plastic, are sourced and verified through certification systems such as the FSC™ (Forest Stewardship Council™) and (ISCC) International Sustainability & Carbon Certification.

The challenge for industry more broadly is to fast-track collective efforts to deliver advances in this space and raise the bar not only in terms of what is expected but what is possible. Collaboration is key to ensuring that the wider supporting infrastructure is in place to support a low carbon circular economy that minimises waste throughout the supply chain and that the necessary information is communicated to consumers so that they can make informed decisions when it comes to packaging. For example, in the packaging industry this means supporting efforts to increase recycling rates so that the full benefits of cartons can by unlocked, (with some carton fibres being recycled up to seven times) as well as ensuring consumers understand how and where they can recycle their packages.

Recent global events have demonstrated the need for sustainable and secure supply chains and use of resources. They have also shown us the power we hold when we combine forces to take collective action. The same energy and urgency must now be directed at tackling the climate crisis.

COP 27 marks 30 years since the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. As a company that has recently grown its presence in MENA it is particularly exciting to see these conversations take place in a region where there is significant potential to support the transition to more sustainable packaging solutions as just one aspect of the global imperative to decarbonise. While we still have a long way to go, the packaging we choose can make a difference.

  • Thomas Körmendi, CEO of Elopak

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