Did you know that 154 billion litres of perishable liquid foods , such as milk, nectars, juices and plant-based dairy alternatives, are consumed in the EU each year? A significant share of these foods are carefully stored in aseptic packaging specifically designed to protect their nutritional value and safety and to ensure an extended shelf life. But the new EU proposal for a Packaging and Packaging Waste regulation (PPWR) which promotes reuse of packaging, puts the safety and standards of perishable liquid foods at risk.
In Europe, roughly 300 litres of perishable liquid foods are consumed by each person every year. This number is expected to rise as a result of growing demand. Take oat-based beverages as an example. Consumption of these type of beverages in Europe grew by 50.8% between 2020 and 2022, with the European oat-based beverage market expected to hit €1.96 billion by 2026.
Perishable liquid foods like milk, fruit juices or oat-based beverages have a short shelf life due to their sensitivity to microbiological spoilage caused by bacteria or yeasts. Fruit juices are susceptible to damage from oxygen whilst dairy and plant-based drinks could suffer from exposure to light as well as oxygen. These risks mean that they require specific processing and packaging solutions to ensure that they contribute to healthy nutrition and that high standards of food hygiene are maintained.
Drawing on several decades of experience, industrial players like Tetra Pak have been able to create safe solutions for these challenges. Aseptic processing and packaging solutions have been specifically designed to ensure that food safety standards remain high, while food waste and the industry's carbon footprint is reduced. Development of aseptic packaging has led to a significant increase in shelf life for perishable liquid foods, up to 12 months. From the outset, this type of packaging has been designed with recycling, rather than reuse, in mind.
Recycling has long been the focal point of packaging legislation. As of 2019, the EU had a 51% collection for recycling rate for beverage cartons, and the industry is committed to further increase the rate in order to meet 70% effective recycling rate, in EU, in 2030. These ambitious goals are reflected by Tetra Pak’s plan to invest €100 million per year to continuously improve the environmental profile of beverage cartons and the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment’s call for a mandatory 90% collection target for all packaging by 2030.
However, the current draft of the PPWR suggests applying mandatory reuse targets across all non-alcoholic beverages, even if reuse targets for liquid perishable foods may lead to unintended consequences for perishable liquid foods, impacting food safety and availability in Europe.
Packaging legislation should incentivise packaging that contributes to the EU Green Deal goals while enabling sufficient access to safe, affordable and nutritious food.
Ola Elmqvist, Tetra Pak’s Executive Vice President Packaging Solutions
Professor Fabio Licciardello, an expert in food technology, published scientific studies on food packaging and material behaviour in different packaging systems and underlined some of the key risks posed by reuse of packaging for perishable liquid foods.
“Single-use packaging does not represent, in itself, a limit for sustainability, since solutions such as aseptic packaging offer clear advantages for the food value chain. With current reusable alternatives, the shelf-life standards of aseptically-packaged products could not be guaranteed, which would raise the need for refrigerated storage, with higher costs and environmental impacts. Any packaging system has its own specific improvement strategies: reuse seems inappropriate and scientifically unsound for plastic bottles and containers, in fact it may have detrimental effects on product quality and shelf-life standards, on consumers’ health and on the overall sustainability of food value chain.”
Risks were also highlighted by Annick Carpentier, the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment’s Director General. “The only reusable packaging that can be used for products like juice is glass, however this also requires greater use of cold chain distribution systems. Reusable plastic is not a viable solution as the pulp sticks to the plastic requiring intense sanitation leading to greater levels of carbon emissions and damage of the container forbidding their further reuse.”
Whilst the PPWR has the right ambition to reduce packaging waste, the means need to be chosen based on a robust assessment of impact on food safety and availability. Reusable packaging and single-use recyclable packaging can coexist, but the correct context needs to be provided for industries and materials. This should be based on their own unique requirements, while also considering product shelf-life provided by different single use and reusable packaging applications, as well as specific waste and loss impacts.
For Ola Elmqvist, Tetra Pak's Executive Vice President Packaging Solutions, new packaging legislation provides policymakers with the opportunity to support innovation. “We support the overall ambition of the proposed EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, which seeks to reduce packaging waste and make all packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030. However, we see a few areas for improvement.”
“Packaging legislation should incentivise packaging that contributes to the EU Green Deal goals while enabling sufficient access to safe, affordable and nutritious food.”
To achieve this, a supporting policy framework will be crucial to help packaging manufacturers continue their sustainability journeys and realise commitments to recyclable packaging, greater use of renewable materials and accelerated recycling.
 Perishable foods are defined in EU legislation under Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 as foods which, from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and are therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health.
3 The food industry chooses beverage cartons for about 59% of juices, 75% of milk and a major share of dairy alternatives in the EU. https://www.beveragecarton.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/ACE-Impact-assessment-study-of-an-EU-wide-collection-for-recycling-target-of-beverage-cartons-Roland-Berger.pdf; https://aijn.eu/files/attachments/.598/2018_Liquid_Fruit_Market_Report.pdf (p. 7)
 Nielsen, IRI, Kantar Q4 2022 – consolidated figures from: BE, IT, FR, ES, UK, DE, AT, CH, PO, PT, SE, NL, NO, DK