Dragan Rajković, Sustainability Director for North and East Europe, Tetra Pak: Resilient Food Systems Need Sustainable Food Packaging

Food packaging and food processing play a significant role in maintaining the stability of that system and ensuring a significant reduction of food waste

We spoke with Dragan Rajković, Sustainability Director for North and East Europe of Tetra Pak, about innovative packaging, decarbonisation and the circular economy.

Dragan Rajković, Sustainability Director for North and East Europe of Tetra Pak/ Promo Tetra Pak

Tetra Pak has a recognizable slogan “Protect What’s Good”. Does this slogan refer only to food packaged in Tetra Pak’s packaging or does it have a broader meaning?

“Protects What’s Good” is not a tagline or a mission statement – it is our modus operandi. It is the operating model instilled in everything we plan, produce, sell and aimed at everyone we employ, partner with or supply from. At Tetra Pak we practice what we preach. Exercising sustainability without its social element is a recipe for failure these days. So our “Protects What’s Good” goes for every food and beverage packaging we put on the market, every machine we install at our customer’s site, every employee we onboard, each partnership we forge and every step of our planet where we operate. Our role is now greater than ever. We live in a time of unprecedented crises and our whole food system is at stake. Food packaging and food processing play a significant role in maintaining the stability of that system and ensuring a significant reduction of food waste. Our packages are made from on average 70% renewable material and are fully recyclable providing a sustainable substitution for fossil-based products.

The circular economy concept, which entails all activities that reduce, reuse and recycle materials in the processes of production, distribution and consumption, has become very popular in recent years. How does this concept work in Tetra Pak?

Our strategy is to ensure that every package we produce is collected and recycled and we have set very demanding ambitions for ourselves and our industry at large – 70% collection for recycling until 2025 and 90% until 2030. As you know Europe is a very diverse market when it comes to regulations and even among EU member states, there are countries like Belgium and Germany who are performing extremely well in the household collection and others where the collection of beverage cartons and other waste is still in the emerging phase. We are working with our recycling partners and customers to increase recycling capacities and educate consumers on the importance of primary sorting. At the same time, we are having an intense dialogue with governments to ensure effective collection. Serbia and Western Balkans also have an ambitious green agenda but there is still a lot to be done. That is actually an opportunity to pioneer certain solutions like an all-inclusive deposit return system.

“We have been innovating for the past 70 years since we set up our first production site in Sweden”

In terms of using recycled content, we have started introducing recycled polymers in our packages but the reality is that the supply of such polymers is very tight and everyone is facing issues with raw material availability. Our recycled fibres currently do not go back to our product due to food safety legislation issues but they certainly have an amazing afterlife – be it as tissues, cardboard, stretch foils, school benches and even facades for buildings as we recently saw in Colombia.

Tetra Pak was once widely recognized for its food packaging innovations. How much attention does the company pay today to innovation?

Innovation drives our business. We have been innovating for the past 70 years since we set up our first production site in Sweden. Our package is made of the majority, around 75%, of responsibly sourced and renewable fibre content, around 20% of plastic and 5% aluminium. Over the next decade, we will invest EUR 100 million every year in product innovation, driving our package towards a fully fibre-based content and significantly reducing plastic along the way. Recently we made two major innovation breakthroughs – caps and lids made of plant-based plastic and test for the fibre barrier replacing the current aluminium one. These innovations are present across our portfolio and Serbia is a part of our global map and one of our key packaging production sites.

Part of the innovation story follows stipulations of the EU Green Deal – our paper straws are now widely used across Europe and our investment in the single-use plastic directive related portfolio changes has amounted to close to half a billion euros.

Everyone is familiar with Tetra Pak packaging for liquid food products such as milk or yoghurt. Where is Tetra Pak packaging used? How important is food packaging in the fight against world hunger?

Our company has three major business units – food packaging, food processing and services. Food packaging has been traditionally the most visible part of our business and close to end consumers as those are palpable retail products. That is how our package became a symbol for liquid food packaging. However, our processing and equipment business unit plays a vital role in food infrastructure – to process milk, cheese or make ice cream ready to eat as we see it in supermarkets, all of this comes from Tetra Pak production lines.

We provide complete solutions and processing equipment for dairy, cheese, ice cream, beverages and prepared food. Our customers provide old favourites or new recipes filled with your own brand of passion and uniqueness. That’s a great way of creating success together.

Decarbonisation has become one of the most important proclaimed goals in the world, namely reducing the use of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions as the biggest polluter of the atmosphere and the main culprit of global warming. Is there a way for Tetra Pak to get involved in achieving that goal?

Decarbonisation is a must in order to fight climate change. The problem is that most of the decarbonisation efforts were very much focused on the energy or construction sector. We should not neglect materials and the role they play. No matter how much we invest in collection and recycling infrastructure, we cannot recycle our way out of the climate crisis. Tetra Pak was one of the initiators of the Radical Material decarbonisation Coalition at the EU level together with Unilever, H&M and many other organisations from the civil sector and members of the European Parliament.

Our company is committed to making our production carbon neutral by 2030 and our entire value chain by 2050. Reduction of energy, replacement of fossil-based raw materials with plant-based, and switch towards fully renewable energy are major parts of that journey. For instance, our Serbian factory already operates 100% on renewable energy.

The amount of waste generated in the food industry chain is huge. Does Tetra Pak have programmes or campaigns to reduce this waste by, for instance, collecting discarded packaging, helping to build packaging recycling infrastructure and the like?

We are very much focused on food security and food safety. Too much food is being wasted around the world and we simply need fundamental changes. What the packaging industry can do is offer a product that keeps food safe even without refrigeration for long periods. This is quintessential Tetra Pak. Our aseptic packages enable milk, juices or soups to have a stable shelf life of 6 or 12 months without temperature adjustments. This trait makes our packaging highly desirable, for example, in school milk programmes all over the world.

“Too much food is being wasted around the world and we simply need fundamental changes”

Post-consumer life of our package is what keeps me awake at night and you are right in saying that the creation of circularity helps reduce the waste. However, we can invest in all state-of-the-art recycling facilities in this world, but if collection infrastructure fails, the whole system is futile. Tetra Pak works with our industry partners to invest in major fibre and poly-aluminium recycling facilities around Europe. Western Balkans is also on our map, but before we make any major investment, food and beverage cartons need to be accepted as a separate category in local collection systems. There cannot be discrimination towards certain materials or we will never resolve the waste issue. In Serbia, the situation is not easy but some solutions could make this country lead the circular economy journey of the region. One of them is the deposit return system – like the recent pilot we deployed in Kragujevac or the ongoing collection trial in Belgrade. An all-inclusive and unfragmented system managed by the industry and developed to increase the current modest in-take of all materials is the only effective way forward.

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