22 Jul 2020 — Environmental sustainability has become a key product differentiator in the packaged water industry. Conventional plastic bottles are a symbol of the global plastic pollution problem and the rising tide of public anti-plastic sentiment, although plastic advocates pinpoint poor waste management infrastructure and throwaway culture as the underlying issues. Coupled with the increased urgency of carbon reduction measures, this has encouraged conversions to recycled PET (rPET), lightweighting programs, disruptive solutions including water in cartons and aluminum cans, reusable innovations and more energy-efficient processing. PackagingInsights speaks with experts from major packaging suppliers SIGSidel, Ball and Alpla to find out more.

Recognized certifications mean customers can be confident that the goods they buy are produced in a way that respects the people involved and minimizes risks to the environment, according to Grigory Vikentyev, Category Manager Beverages & Food Europe at SIG.

The company recently partnered with B-Better, a start-up brand from Unilever’s Future Platform, to launch a range of water beverages in SIG’s combidome carton. These paperboard cartons are made from 75 percent paperboard and have Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which is becoming the industry standard. “Our FSC Chain of Custody certification enables wood fibers to be traced back to a certified source. This has been in place since 2009 and we’ve come a long way since then,” says Vikentyev.

B-Better is the first water brand to make use of SIG’s combidome cartons, made with 75 percent FSC-certified paperboard.Producers can also pair combidome with the company’s SIGNATURE packaging cartons. The polymers used to make the cartons, including laminating the paperboard and making the closure, are entirely linked to wood-based material that originates from renewable European wood sources. These are certified according to International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) PLUS or TÜV SÜD certification standard (CMS 71), respectively, via a mass balance system.

Lightweighting a heavyweight problem
PET bottling company Sidel chooses to interpret the “environmentally friendly water bottle task” not with more certified wood fiber, but with less plastic. The company’s latest 500 ml PET packaging solution X-LITE Still for non-pressurized still water is compatible with rPET if the quality of the rPET is appropriate.

“As the lightest bottle in the world for still water, Sidel X-LITE Still dramatically reduces PET resin consumption. When compared to bottles weighing 12 g, the new solution can save a remarkable 1,485 metric tons of PET per year while generating energy savings of up to 335,000 kWh/year,” details Luc Desoutter, Sustainability Officer at Sidel.

Speaking of energy savings, Sidel boasts “a huge amount of innovations” across the production line that “champion its commitment” to help producers reduce their environmental footprint. The company’s highlights include its Matrix blower, which uses a minimum amount of energy, air, chemicals and water in the production process. This year, Sidel also launched its next-generation Super Combi Compact for still water bottle production, which allows up to 30 percent footprint reduction compared to the previous model and guarantees a 30 percent faster performance at up to 54,000 bottles per hour.
Sidel’s X-LITE Still can save a 1,485 metric tons of PET per year due to its lighter weight and customized design.

“Optimizing operations for our customers is about defining the best combination between machinery and packaging. To this extent, Sidel challenges further technical solutions by putting together customer specifications, packaging material and design, and production process,” Desoutter explains.

Metal recycles forever
For Ball Corporation, using metal-based materials for bottling water is the ticket, as aluminum can be infinitely recycled without losing quality. “Many other materials can only be recycled a few times before they start degrading. Then, they may end up in landfill,” flags Marcel Arsand, Head of Sustainability, Ball Beverage Packaging EMEA.

Recently, Ball provided Russia-based naturally sourced water brand Legend Of Baikal with aluminum cans and lids. The 330 ml Legend of Baikal Water cans are designed for on-the-go hydration and can be easily recycled. The shift away from plastic bottles aims to appeal to younger consumers who are increasingly looking for convenient and functional packaging with strong environmental credentials.

“The aluminum can has high recycling rates (75 percent in Europe) and can be back on the shelf as a new can within a few weeks. In addition, recycled aluminum uses 95 percent less energy than primary production. As recycling rates increase, aluminum becomes less carbon-intensive than other packaging types,” Arsand outlines.

Not only are aluminum cans widely recycled in Europe, but they can be back on shelf as a new can within a few weeks.Filling water in aluminum cans provides additional marketing benefits, he continues. “Cans come in a variety of sizes and shapes to help brands stand out on the self and also provide a superior 360° branding canvas – compared to other packaging types – enabling a more unique consumer offering. It is also worth adding that color and design do not affect recyclability.”

From theory to practice: Reusable packaging
A relative newcomer to the discussion, reusability has brought its own folding chair to the sustainability table. In April 2019, an Alpla-commissioned life cycle assessment study revealed that theoretically, a reusable PET bottle made entirely of recycled materials trumped all alternatives in regards to the environmental impacts of packaging types made of plastic, glass, metal and carton.

Within less than a year, the Germany-based packaging company developed 1 L reusable and refillable PET bottle in partnership with bottling and packaging systems company KHS. Even when the bottle is no longer suitable for refillable use, it can be recycled and the material can be turned into new PET bottles.

“Reusable solutions developed by ALPLA already exist in a number of markets,” notes Christoph Hoffmann, Director Corporate Strategy, Sustainability & Circular Economy at Alpla. “However, it is important to consider that there is a lack of acceptance among Austrian consumers for the reusable PET bottle for water and soft drinks, resulting in it being withdrawn from the market. The proportionality of the additional costs and the environmental benefits really needs to be looked into,” he stresses.

COVID-19 implications
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, water has been one of the less impacted beverage segments in terms of sales or consumption slowdown, says Damien Fournier, Water Category Director at Sidel.

“Being aware of the pressure on resource management, sustainable production processes and increased awareness on material collection and reuse are, however, important subjects for many initiatives and developments within the industry. Therefore, solutions for the water category are more and more diverse [spurring] more sophisticated hydration.”Alpla’s partnership with KHS this year gave life to a 1 L refillable PET bottle that outperformed other materials in a company-commissioned LCA.

Even before the pandemic took its toll on the food and packaging industries, environmental sustainability in water packaging was already a high priority for brands and consumers, says Vikentyev of SIG.

“We know that there is an increasing share of consumers looking for sustainable solutions. Our goal is to extend our range of packaging solutions for water even further in many unique shapes, but also to further increase the share of plant-based materials used to make them.”

Lastly, Arsand at Ball expects the flavored water category to boom. “As consumers seek healthier alternatives to traditional soft drinks, flavored water in cans is becoming a very popular alternative,” he concludes.