The reality of a circular economy around packaging continues to strengthen as companies further improve, or adopt, emerging innovations. Adam McCleery writes.
A partnership between Tetra Pak, a food processing and packaging solutions company, and saveBOARD, manufacturers of sustainable building materials, is a prime example of how recycling packaging for secondary use or market can help drive a circular economy.
Recently, the first saveBOARD facility in Australia was opened as a result of the collaboration. Located in Warragamba, Sydney’s southwest, the new $5.5 million facility has the capacity to process up to 4,000 tonnes of beverage cartons annually and employ up to twelve local staff to operate the plant.
The facility’s construction was supported by the Australian Government’s Recycling Modernisation Fund and the NSW Government’s ‘Waste Less, Recycle More’ initiative.
The facility is the first of its kind in Australia to manufacture construction panels from beverage cartons that would otherwise go overseas to paper recyclers in Asia.
The panels are a one-for-one alternative to conventional plywood, oriented strand board (OSB) or chipboard and are 100 per cent recyclable.
The fact that they use no chemicals or adhesives like formaldehyde, no water and have the lowest carbon footprint of comparable building products means they can be used for green star certified buildings, was a key factor behind Tetra Pak’s support.
The industry-led project is the first collaboration in Australia under the umbrella of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) and is a joint initiative with saveBOARD and its partners Freightways and Closed Loop.
Vikas Ahuja, Tetra Pak’s sustainability director Oceania, said the work being done with saveBOARD aligns perfectly with the company’s sustainability goals.
“We commit to making food safe and available, everywhere. This is our purpose and why we come to work every day. We aim to provide safe nutrition as widely as possible,” he said.
“We believe a package should save more than its costs. An LCA study of food and beverage packaging in Australia and New Zealand conducted by thinkstep-ANZ showed that cartons have the lowest carbon footprint compared to other beverage packaging formats including glass, PET and recycled PET.
“If you think about carbon footprint of a milk carton, the packaging is about two per cent of that product’s total footprint. Based on some of those numbers, we are saving more than 50 times the environmental impact of the carton itself by preserving milk for more than two years without requiring refrigeration.
Ahuja said Tetra Pak launched its collaboration with saveBOARD after recognising that the Australian market was well suited to both a growth in paper-based packaging and demand for timber replacement construction materials, much like it is in the United States and other large international markets.
“It fits very well with Australian market conditions,” he said.
“There are other ways of recycling beverage cartons in Europe and most of Asia, where the demand for fibre is high and cartons are already re-pulped back into paper.
“For Australia, it was important for us to find a market appropriate technology. We are already oversupplied with recovered paper, so finding a solution better suited to our market than re-pulping was important for us”
The success of saveBOARD technology, which has been in use in USA for more than 15 years, also meant the risks of applying it in Australia were minimised. In an interesting twist, the very origin of this technology was linked with liquids, and beverages, in a couple of ways.
“The originator of this technology was trying to make building products that were more water resistant, and he realised that milk comes in a paper carton and is water resistant, so why can’t a wall do the same,” said Ahuja.
“That is how this product started. Its origins are completely interlinked with beverage cartons.”
Knowing that Australia has a high demand for construction panels was another tick in the positive column for Tetra Pak.
“When looking for what to bring into the local market, they knew they were picking a successful product,” said Ahuja.
“It has a significantly lower carbon footprint because it is made from recycled materials, and it’s fit for purpose when you compare its performance to those existing materials.
“By delivering a one for one replacement into a large existing market, it was a simpler and safer commercial proposition.”
The booming demand for paper- based, renewable packaging, is another key driver behind the facilities construction.
“Demand for paper-based packaging is growing, and we don’t see that backing off,” said Ahuja.
“As the shift towards more paper-based packaging grows, the opportunities to reuse it again in different products becomes important. People looking at packaging made from natural, renewable, plant-based materials like paper are positioning themselves well for a growing market.”
The government funding from the Australian, NSW, QLD and VIC governments for all three saveBOARD plants was also another strong indication that the future of recycling, particularly paper-based packaging is expected to continue to grow in Australia, towards meeting the packaging and recycling targets.
“The commitment from government works because it significantly reduces the risk for investors,” said Ahuja.
“The commitment from government to support these projects, means investors see a ratification of things like the technology, but also feedstock availability, and potential support for things like planning consents, that all help these projects land and succeed.
“The packaging targets have engendered a lot of cross-sector collaboration that includes not just the brands selling packaged products, but the collectors, sorters and recyclers and is a key reason why the targets and funding have helped drive work in this space.”
The first saveBOARD project came about because of a collaboration between Tetra Pak, a large local dairy company, two waste management companies and a large logistics and information management company.
In terms of processing saveBOARD, “it’s a simple process where beverage cartons are shredded and then pressed between two hot plates at a high temperature. That’s it,” said Ahuja.
This process also allows variations of the product which are well suited to different applications in construction.
“There is one with a layer of fibreglass that can be used for roofing,” said Ahuja.
“Another with a layer of craft paper so you can use it to replace interior plasterboard, skim it and paint it. “The one that gets the most interest, is the ‘exposed board’ because it tells its own story, you can see the pieces of recycled Tetra Pak cartons in the board, and people recognize the brands they buy.”
“A lot of the current work with architects and interior designers is with that exposed board.”
SaveBOARD are also making material which is a great replacement for plywood used for site hoardings, and boxing for pouring concrete. Thanks to the product’s history overseas, it had already proven to be up to building standards and certifications.
Ahuja, and Tetra Pak, expect the market for saveBOARD products to grow because of the sustainability and cost benefits of using saveBOARD’s products for future construction projects.
The demand for sustainable products with hefty premiums is relatively small. “Critically, for new recycling ventures to succeed, you must find something that is commercially viable in its own right, like the saveBOARD product,” he said.
“The great thing with saveBOARD is that it’s price competitive when compared to standard building materials like plywood and OSB.
“saveBOARD are giving builders a great choice, they can have a recycled, sustainable, almost zero carbon material, and save money with that choice. Some major Australian brands readying projects for launch, using saveBOARD products.
“It doesn’t end there. We are now investing in sorting equipment in Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) across Australia. We have just invested in Australia’s first AI-robot for sorting beverage cartons for saveBOARD. And we are interested in partnering with other MRF operators, but also brands which have an interest in having their packaging sorted at MRFs for local recycling.”