Knowledge gaps for perishable liquid food packs threaten Green Deal

Professor Fredrik Nilsson, Packaging Logistics, Faculty of Engineering, Lund University

Policymakers are currently deliberating on packaging reuse targets in the proposed EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). But do they have the necessary evidence to make those decisions for all packaged products? A systematic review of 159 relevant scientific studies on packaging alternatives for perishable liquid foods[1] — milk, juices, nectars and plant-based drinks — suggests there is a clear gap in holistic impact assessment knowledge.

Packaging of perishable liquid foods exists in various forms such as aseptic paper-based beverage cartons or non-aseptic solutions such as plastic or glass bottles. Each packaging solution has an impact on the quality, safety and shelf life of the food it contains. In assessing packaging solutions, efforts should be made to understand the wider context of reuse targets for perishable liquid foods, with consideration for packaging types, food security, food safety, food waste and environmental impacts.

In both research and policy contexts, packaging is still often considered separately from its contents in impact assessments.

However, in both research and policy contexts, packaging is still often considered separately from its contents in impact assessments, despite an existing body of knowledge and evidence showing that food and its packaging should be treated as an integrated unit.

Consequently, policymakers served only with evidence of packaging impacts could be misled and make inaccurate decisions when discussing the measures included in the proposed EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). This risks undermining the EU’s Green Deal ambitions.

The importance of the analysis

One of the primary objectives of the proposed PPWR is to ensure that “all packaging in the EU is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030”, in line with the EU Green Deal and the EU Circular Economy Action Plan. Setting reusable packaging targets was always likely to spark a robust debate with the food industry. The European food system uses a large amount of packaging and the use of single-use packaging in particular has grown significantly in the past decades. For perishable liquid foods, producers today prefer recyclable single-use packaging — such as aseptic beverage cartons — for the sale of 75 percent of milk, 59 percent of juices and a major share of plant-based drinks in the EU[2].

We undertook a comprehensive and systematic analysis of all identifiable studies on single-use versus reusable packaging for perishable liquid foods.

With a specific focus on the 154 billion liters of perishable liquid foods produced in the EU each year[3], a more fundamental question occurred to the Packaging Logistics division in the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University. We wondered if a sufficient body of evidence existed to help policymakers make packaging reuse decisions, so we undertook a comprehensive and systematic analysis of all identifiable studies on single-use versus reusable packaging for perishable liquid foods.

The scale of the knowledge gap that we uncovered was eye-opening.

Findings from the study

Based on an analysis of 159 identified scientific papers, we came to three main conclusions.

First, the research and knowledge of food waste for single-use packaging compared to reusable packaging alternatives for perishable liquid foods was clearly insufficient. No studies were found that evaluated reusable packaging for such foods in relation to food waste, consequently no studies were found comparing single-use packaging with reusable packaging in this regard. A few studies were found that evaluated different single-use packaging alternatives in terms of the packaging and the liquid food being contained, finding that multilayer carton packages had the lowest environmental impact. Most environmentally-focused studies on food packaging did not consider the food saved or wasted.

The research and knowledge of food waste for single-use packaging compared to reusable packaging alternatives for perishable liquid foods was clearly insufficient.

Second, there were few studies comparing reusable and single-use packaging for perishable liquid foods in terms of food safety and quality. Instead, the majority of sampled papers simply provided insights and evidence for critical factors to be considered in food production and supply chain handling to keep liquid foods safe and of sufficient quality. This analysis surfaced several challenges related to reusable packaging, some related to food safety and others to quality limitations. For example, some studies pointed out quality-related challenges from plastic refillable bottles, such as the absorption of chemicals from previous use.

Finally, while there were many papers addressing shelf life as a critical aspect for perishable liquid foods — and many that empirically provided evidence of lower food waste in retail and at the consumer stage when shelf life is prolonged — there were still sizable knowledge gaps. No studies were found that compared the shelf life of single-use versus reusable packaging for perishable liquid foods. None were found that evaluated the shelf life of reusable packaging for such foods in relation to food waste, and none were found that clarified what optimal shelf life is for different products.

In our view, the key knowledge gaps at this time are: evidence of food waste impacts for reusable alternatives, so that a comparison with recyclable single-use packaging is possible; comparative studies on food safety and quality impacts through using single-use and reusable alternatives; shelf life comparisons; impact assessments that also take into account climate and land-use impacts; and, most importantly, food packaging studies that take into account the product that the packaging contains and protects. 

Key knowledge gaps need to be addressed

Policymakers should be insisting on accessing a more holistic knowledge base built on assessment of impact, before they finalize reusable packaging targets in the PPWR. 

The evidence we have today suggests that greater food safety, food security and food quality could be achieved by increasing the use of recyclable single-use packaging.

A more holistic perspective is crucial to help policymakers avoid measures that might miss higher environmental gains, compromise consumers’ health and wellbeing, and reconfigure the packaging industry. Further knowledge might indicate that reusable packaging for perishable liquid foods is feasible under specific circumstances. However, the evidence we have today suggests that greater food safety, food security and food quality could be achieved by increasing the use of recyclable single-use packaging. Support for that choice is already demonstrated today through the packaging chosen by the majority of European milk, juice and plant-based drink producers.

[1] 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.

[2] AIJN, Liquid Fruit Market Report, 2018, p.7

[3] Key figures on the European food chain, Eurostat, 2021

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A new green EU directive could see circular washing go down the drain

If passed, the law will ban generic claims — from “environmentally-friendly” and “eco” to “natural” and “biodegradable” — from being made without evidence. This is a much-needed step in the right direction, Ana Birliga Sutherland writes.

Regulators are finally cracking down on advertisers making false green claims, in a series of moves dubbed the end of the “greenwashing era”. 


These claims — from the vague (“all natural”) to the hard-to-verify and seemingly omnipresent (“carbon neutral”)—often mislead increasingly climate-conscious consumers. 

The desire for more environmentally friendly goods is growing rapidly, with nearly 90% of Gen X consumers willing to spend more on sustainable products, compared to 34% in 2020. 

And at the same time, the circular economy — an economic model that designs out waste, cuts material use and keeps materials in the loop for as long as possible — is becoming increasingly mainstream.

This begs the question: as greenwashing is kicked to the kerb, does this allow space for its more insidious cousin — circular washing — to creep in? 

A ban on vague, misleading and unfounded claims is on its way

Keen to profit from consumers’ changing ethos, brands are adding circular claims to their arsenals. 

These can be even more harmful: what’s branded as “circular” isn’t always good for the environment, especially if it features an over-reliance on recycling rather than substantial cuts in material use. 

Advertisers can tend to focus on a single aspect of their product or service, but a holistic approach to circularity is most effective: claims that a product contains recycled materials, for example, may not show the whole picture, drawing attention away from other not-so-circular features.

The EU’s move to tackle greenwashing has drawn attention from proponents and critics alike: the proposal for the new “Green Claims” directive was voted in plenary with a huge majority, setting the foundation for a finalised law in the coming months. 

If passed, it’ll ban generic claims — from “environmentally-friendly” and “eco” to “natural” and “biodegradable” — from being made without evidence, requiring brands to verify their products’ merits through third-party certification schemes. 

This is a much-needed step in the right direction: a 2020 study found that a massive 53% of green claims were vague, misleading or unfounded, with a further 40% entirely unsubstantiated. 

But will the directive take on circular washing — and consequently encourage true circularity as well?


The Green Claims directive will cover all manner of sins — circular washing included

The proposed directive rides along a wave of initiatives that aims to make “environmentally sustainable products and business models the norm, and not the exception”; complemented by circular design interventions, an upcoming ban on planned obsolescence and another proposed directive on common rules for the repair of goods.

The need to tackle greenwashing has emerged as a priority under the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan and also supports the goals of the European Green Deal — and to this end, the directive succeeds at covering any number of false environmental claims and boasts the much-needed nuance. 

The sustainability of a part does not equal the sustainability of the whole, but certain aspects — recyclability, repairability, and durability, for example — can be featured as benefits, if substantiated. 

The proposed directive highlights the “fast-changing area of environmental claims by means of a single method”, as well as its flaws: rolling out a single method, like environmental footprinting, may not do credit to a product’s genuine performance, whether positive or negative.

Claims omitting hidden trade-offs might mislead consumers

This sentiment has been echoed by environmental NGOs, which have expressed that single environmental scores mustn’t be used to “hide trade-offs”. 


This is addressed in further detail by the directive, which notes that consumers could be misled if claims point to environmental benefits while omitting the fact that those benefits lead to hidden trade-offs. 

For example, an environmental claim on textiles containing polymer from recycled PET bottles, if the recycled material may be otherwise used within a closed-loop recycling system for food packaging — the more beneficial option from a circular economy perspective. 

While bottle-to-bottle recycling is the ideal, the market for recycled plastic fabrics is growing — and not always first discerning whether higher-value reuse or recycling options are feasible.

The proposed directive calls for nuance in determining products’ environmental — or circular — performance, noting that comparative claims between similar products with different raw materials and production processes must take the most relevant life-cycle stages into account. 

For example: impacts within the agriculture and forestry industries are relevant for bio-based plastics, while oil extraction comes to the fore for fossil-based plastics. 


While bio-based plastics certainly can be greener than their fossil-based counterparts — particularly in terms of their carbon footprint — concerns about the land-use requirements needed to grow the plants potentially competing with food and feed production and the potential risk of increased monocropping have come to the fore. 

These are the kinds of trade-offs the proposed directive hopes to shine a light on, especially as these claims are rising and are more often than not misleading.

The caveat: tackling false claims may lead to green — or circular — ’hushing’

Can a good thing go too far? Critics of the directive have honed in on the potential for “greenhushing”: brands deciding not to declare all the sustainable steps they’re taking due to steep costs or even fear of legal pushback for making (unintentional) false claims. 

While the proposed directive does mention protection for SMEs — noting that EU member states should provide adequate information on how to comply, as well as targeted, specialised training and financial support — smaller businesses may stand to lose out without knowledge of the right steps forward. 

While navigating new legislative waters may prove tricky, transparency and willingness to learn will be key along the way.

Additionally, companies should leverage their preparation for the CSRD. Adopted in late 2022, the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive will require nearly 50,000 companies across Europe to report on sustainability, resource use, and circular economy performance. 

Many companies’ sustainability-related data will come to the surface, providing new opportunities for transparency — but also showing where there’s room for improvement. 

Data collected for the CSRD can help companies make informed decisions about what to report and may open them up to attracting new customers and uncovering new ways of doing business. 

It’ll also lay bare businesses’ transgressions, making it more difficult to hide behind false claims.

The EU won’t be a safe haven for unsustainable businesses

While the Directive’s efficacy at quelling greenwashing and circular washing has yet to be seen, its existence in the broader legislative landscape of new EU bills is promising. 

With sustainability reporting requirements just over the horizon (businesses will be required to report on circularity from 2025) and a new ecodesign regulation — which will ban planned obsolescence — receiving broad support in parliament, it seems the EU is shaping a new standard for companies doing business across the continent. 

The next step: making this new standard the new normal.

Ana Birliga Sutherland is Writer and Editor at Circle Economy, a global impact organisation with an international team of experts based in Amsterdam.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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High-quality recycling loops are best for circular economy

On Europe’s journey to a circular economy, high quality recycling is essential. In fact, the recycling of fibre-based packaging constitutes one of the best examples. If you put your used paper products in the right recycling bin, you can count on them making their way to a facility that will recycle those materials so they can be used again many times to make packaging for breakfast cereal, boxes to carry your online deliveries, newspapers, and a whole host of other useful products.

Currently, about 75 percent of the raw materials used for the fibres in our packaging come from recycling. The rest comes from sustainably-managed forests. Our packaging helps keep fossil fuels in the ground, playing its part in making our planet greener. This is why fibre-based materials are widely recognized as one of the most sustainable choices available for packaging.

This is why fibre-based materials are widely recognized as one of the most sustainable choices available for packaging.

The EU’s packaging waste regulation: a key chance to enhance recycling systems

At Fibre Packaging Europe we believe the upcoming Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) has a key role in making recycling even better. We now have a chance to set an ambitious 90 percent separate collection target for all EU member countries.  Here separate collection means transferring materials from your paper and board bin to the recycling plant. There is no better way to ensure that our packaging reaches recyclers after it has been used, and it will further increase an already-remarkable 81.5 percent recycling rate (Eurostat, 2020), higher by volume than plastic, metal and glass combined.

Where we see a risk in the PPWR is if the regulation gets the definition of ‘high-quality’ recycling twisted by restricting it only to what it calls ‘closed loops’. A closed loop means a cereal box would need to be recycled into another cereal box. When fibres are allowed to be recycled universally into any paper and board application and product, it is effective, it is resource efficient, and it reduces CO2 emissions through avoided transportation (to that cereal box factory). Most importantly, it is a good and simple way to continue increasing recycling rates.

Brought to you by Fibre Packaging Europe

Don’t get the loop twisted: why material loops make most sense for paper

But don’t just take it from us. We spoke to seasoned professionals in the recycling business that Fibre Packaging Europe represents to hear first-hand their thoughts on closed loops, the real challenges recyclers face and what can be done to overcome them.

Does closed-loop recycling have a role to play for fibre-based packaging? John Melia, strategy development and innovation director at DS Smith’s Recycling Division, is very clear on this point. “Closed-loop recycling of paper packaging would make no sense in a mature, well-functioning recycling system built on a thriving market for secondary raw materials. It would bring disruption to the market, reduce the quality and lifespan of fibre, and increase the use of fossil fuels in the supply chain. This would be a significant step back from the high-performing recycling system we have today.” 

Recycling systems based on ‘material loops’, on the other hand, mean that the raw materials we get from recycling processes are used in way that is far more versatile. They can be used to make a wide range of sustainable products that we use every day. The system works, and there is already in Europe a unique, thriving market for secondary raw materials in the fibre-based industry. In 2020, 56 million tons of ‘Paper for Recycling’ collected were transformed into equally high-quality new paper and board products.

If fibres get to the right recyclers, they have the tools to do the job

So how to make a high-quality recycling system even better? It all starts with collection.

“All fibre-based packaging is recyclable if, through collection and sorting, the material is guided to the right type of recycling mill”, explains Michel Willems, European Business Coordinator at Smurfit Kappa Recycling. ‘Separate’ collection systems, ones where non-paper materials such as plastic, metal and glass are collected separately from used paper products, can make it much easier to sort and send the material to the right recycling facilities. When it comes to fibre-based packaging products that are discarded by households, there’s an opportunity to further increase recycling rates.

So how to make a high-quality recycling system even better? It all starts with collection.

As a general principle, the more homogenous a fibre-based waste stream is, the easier it is to find the correct mill to do the recycling. Nonetheless, the great advantage of fibre packaging recycling is that a homogenous waste stream is not an absolute necessity for the majority of paper-based products. Most can easily be collected in the same bin, for example, at home. Such a stream, following standard quality checks, is ready for immediate recycling at many mills throughout Europe”, said Michel.

“Our business is built around reducing the environmental impact of packaging on the planet, improving supply chains for billions of people. We have an excellent, high-performance recycling system for cardboard with the highest recycling rate of any packaging material in Europe. Corrugated board packaging occupies a very special place because it has been the most recycled product forever. We recycle a box a minimum of 25 times in its life. At the end, it just returns to nature. Our environmentally friendly product is 100 percent renewable, recyclable and biodegradable”, added Michel.

For John Melia, this point is far more important to a successful circular economy than looking at changing recycling systems. “The EU should be focusing on what we know will bring rates of paper recycling even higher: better recycling infrastructure including increased segregation of recycling raw materials through separate collection of municipal waste,” he says. “We in the industry are doing our part, but achieving the full potential of the fibre recycling system will only be possible through government policies that focus on what we know will make a difference.”

So, when we look to complete the loop on the circular economy, let’s listen to the recyclers themselves. Let’s build on the high-quality recycling that already exists to build a greener Europe with the packaging products we know are sustainable.

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