UK drinks carton recycling is still low

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

The precise rate of UK beverage carton recycling remains unclear
The precise rate of UK beverage carton recycling remains unclear

Related tags Tetra pak Recycling

A decade after the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK) began setting up a network of ‘bring’ sites across the UK and persuading local authorities to introduce kerbside collection, neither Tetra Pak nor ACE UK is disclosing the national recycling rate, saying only that the figure is “certainly higher than the global average” of 25%.

In 2010, Tetra Pak set itself the target of doubling worldwide carton recycling rates from 20% to 40% over 10 years.

In its 2017 sustainability report, published in early October, it stated that the global average had risen to just 25% since 2010. Consequently, it said, it was introducing a “new set of metrics and targets that are market-relevant”.

In the UK, the company is more than happy to talk about the number of authorities carrying out kerbside collection of drinks cartons.

This figure now stands at 67% of all councils. When bring sites are factored in, the proportion reaches 92%.

‘Coverage to keep on rising’

“We confidently expect kerbside collection coverage to keep on rising​,” said Gavin Landeg, head of environment for north-west Europe at Tetra Pak.

For recycling rates, Landeg said that Tetra Pak and ACE UK had estimates from sales and recycling records.

“These are internal figures, which have not been third-party verified, and consequently they are not made available in the public domain,”​ he explained.

According to Tetra Pak’s vice president for the environment Mario Abreu, the recycling rate for the whole of Europe is 47%.

Abreu highlighted similarities between the UK and US. “Around 60% of US householders have access to recycling facilities, but the recycling rate is estimated to be at a lower level low, between 15% and 20%,”​ he said. “We need to learn how to motivate consumers more.”

By way of comparison, Tetra Pak put current recycling rates in China at between 20% and 25%.

Only reprocessing operation

What happens to collected cartons in the UK is also a mixed picture. Four years ago, Sonoco Alcore in Halifax started up the country’s only reprocessing operation.

“The plant offers local authorities a price for the cartons they collect, and currently 35% of all UK local authorities send cartons there,” ​said Landeg.

Tetra Pak said it could guarantee what happened to this portion of the waste. But this leaves 57% of authorities that collect cartons saying that they recycle them elsewhere. “This will include export to the global recycling market,”​ Landeg added.

There are other ways in which forging a link between cartons and sustainability seems tougher in the UK than in some other European markets.

So far in 2017, Tetra Pak said that worldwide sales of its bio-based cartons had reached close to 500M packs. In Norway, for example, 84% of chilled white milk sold in Tetra Rex cartons is in the fully-renewable version. So far, there have been no UK launches.

The bio-based carton was launched four years ago, and utilises plant-derived bio-polyethylene.

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