Plastic, glass or fibre bottles - what is the packaging of the future?

  • 2022-07-20
  • Carlsberg brand manager in Latvia Tomas Piliponis

Plastic bottles can take up to 500 years to decompose, and when they get into nature, they can pollute soil and water. An estimated 165 million tons of plastic waste are floating in the oceans, threatening the health and safety of marine animals. On the other hand, a glass bottle can take 4,000 years to decompose. If their parts get into nature, people and animals can cut themselves on the glass, animals or birds can swallow it without being able to digest it. It is also a dangerous fire risk factor. Another type of packaging, beverage cans, can take 200-500 years to decompose, and when they get into nature, their sharp edges can cause injuries to people and animals. The impact on the environment undeniably encourages the search for new types of packaging, while taking into account that packaging today has to fulfil a variety of additional functions. If once the packaging had to provide only the possibility to transport goods safely, now the packaging must also meet various sustainability and design prerequisites.

Searching for ways to combine sustainable, ecological and recyclable packaging, while maintaining all the characteristics and quality of the product, an innovative beer packaging solution was created, which consists of a plant-based PEF polymer and a fibre outer shell - a fibre bottle. The bottles, which are already reaching consumers in several markets, are made entirely from natural raw materials, and, on top of that, the material is compatible with plastic recycling systems and decomposes when it enters nature.

What exactly is a fibre bottle made of? The outer shell is made of natural wood fibre - it forms a layer that looks like paper (it also feels like paper to the touch), but this material is able to give the bottle its shape and keep the beer fresh. It should be noted that the use of softwood fibres reduces deforestation and promotes forest regeneration, as the wood is obtained only from FSC-certified suppliers who follow responsible forestry practices (a new tree is planted instead of every 2-3 felled trees, and the time of tree felling is optimized, taking into account that younger or growing trees absorb CO2 faster than older trees). The inner layer, or lining, is made of the vegetable polymer polyethylene furanoate (PEF), which can be recycled in conventional plastic recycling systems and can degrade much faster than conventional plastic. The PEF layer acts as a barrier between the beer and the paper-like outer shell, allowing the beer to be transported while preserving its flavour for up to 6 months. PEF is a revolutionary material - it is made from fully renewable raw materials and can trap carbon dioxide 8 times better than conventional PET plastic, so both the environment and beer benefit from this PEF solution.

Thanks to the development of technology, it has become possible to create PEF material on a biological basis, that is, renewable and biological raw materials are used as a basis. PEF fibre contains sugars created from wheat fructose, which is referred to as the first generation raw material, and wheat starch, or carbohydrates. In the longer term, PEF production will also use second-generation fructose feedstocks, such as lignocellulosic biomass derived from wood and wood residues, as well as cellulose and agricultural by-products. The possibility of filling an organic and ecological product in a fully recyclable and ecological package has until now been more about various dry and bulk products, but finally it is also possible with beverages.

When thinking about the packaging of the future, it is equally important to take care of its compatibility with today's recycling systems. Thanks to the possibilities offered by biopolymers, the fibre bottles are completely biological and recyclable. They are durable and lightweight at the same time, but what about recycling? In order to successfully recycle fibre bottles, they must be separated into fibre material and plant-based PEF material. PEF is a monomaterial plastic that can be fully recycled in existing recycling facilities and is distinguishable from other plastics in the recycling stream. The inner PEF layer of the bottle and the outer layers of wood fibre are biological, and the body of the bottle breaks down in nature a hundred times faster than ordinary PET bottles. Research by our partners confirms that the decomposition of the material into carbon and water begins within one year and no harmful accumulations are formed as in the case of traditional fossil plastics. Of course, just because a bottle breaks down and doesn't harm the environment doesn't mean it shouldn't be recycled.

Despite the advantages, currently fibre bottles serve as an additional alternative, not an absolute replacement for glass bottles and cans. Large-scale recycling infrastructures have been created for the recycling of cans and the use of refillable glass bottles, so now all alternatives can exist simultaneously, giving consumers a choice.