Recycling Aseptic Packaging Begins To Move

By Nandini Keshari October 23, 2023

Companies like UFlex, which are high on circularity, lead the way

Recycling Aseptic Packaging Begins To Move
UFlex uses enzymatic delamination technology to separate individual layers of the package which can be reused in the production of new products. UFlex

From essential commodities like cell phones, utensils, wires and pipes to cutting-edge innovations like bulletproof vests and prosthetic limbs, they have one thing in common. They all use plastic. Lightweight, cost-effective, durable and flexible plastic has become ubiquitous and an inseparable part of our lives. Among its many utilities, plastic's protective and preservative value makes it essential for the storage and transportation of perishable products through packaging.

The packaging industry is all pervasive, considering the variety of other sectors it caters to, including beverages, food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Currently, plastic forms the majority of packaging. However, given its adverse environmental impact, some packaging companies are searching for sustainable substitutes, while others are transitioning to circular production. The increased pressure to adopt eco-friendly practices recently has given rise to aseptic packaging. Reducing plastic components to around 24%, aseptic packages use approximately 70% of paperboard and 6% of aluminum.

Not only does it lower the environmental footprint, but aseptic packaging also extends the shelf life of a product. The three components used in its production together provide protection against microbiological organisms, contaminants and degradation, eliminating the need for refrigeration. Hence, it also saves costs of expensive cold chain logistics. Multilayered tetra packs for milk and juices and thermoformed tubs such as those used for tomato paste are among the few examples. Moreover, aseptic bulk storage and distribution help significantly in the global food trade. According to Precedence Research, a provider of strategic market insights, the global aseptic packaging market size was $49.69 billion in 2022, and it is estimated to reach around $142.99 billion by 2032, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 11.2% from 2023 to 2032.

However, due to multilayer structure of aseptic packages, it is trickier to recycle them than other packages. Unlike single-layer packages, aseptic containers go through various processes to be fully recycled. After the paper pulp is recovered through hydra pulping, different processes are used to separate polyethene and aluminum residuals. 

In India, flexible packaging company, UFlex uses enzymatic delamination technology to separate individual layers of the package which can be reused in the production of new products. While the paper pulp is sold to paper production companies, the aluminum waste is shredded and used as construction materials.

Despite the knowledge of the technology, its adoption remains low due to the high processing cost and low return on investment. With only a few big companies foraying into the circularity process, the global recycling rate of aseptic packaging remains at 25%, according to Eco To Go Food Packs, a food packaging company. Even the recycling hub Europe recycles only 50% of its packages. The rest of the packaging waste ends up either in landfills oceans or is incinerated.

India is only a reflection of the global scenario in terms of aseptic package recycling. According to Jeevaraj Pillai, president and chief sustainability officer at UFlex, India produces 15 billion packs annually, yet only 20% of the packaging waste is collected and recycled. Elaborating on the reason for the lower rate in India, Pillai said there is a lack of incentive from the government. He further added that the companies shy away from setting up a recycling plant because of the low return on investment in recycling compared to that in the core business.

Suggesting a solution, Pillai said that to incentivise recycling, it needs to be included in corporate social responsibility, and the government must provide GST benefits on the recycled paper pulp, which is taxed as a finished good.

The challenges are not just limited to the absence of incentives from the government. Segregation of municipal solid waste is another hurdle on the path of circularity of aseptic packaging waste. The unavailability of automatic segregation in India is a disincentive for companies to venture into recycling. Pillai believes that only urban local bodies, municipalities or the government can undertake the investment required to put a proper waste segregation infrastructure in place to ensure that the waste is available for recycling. While aseptic packaging appears to be a sustainable option, it might take some more time to become sustainable given the current challenges in the adoption of its recycling.

The visit to aseptic packaging recycling plant in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh was supported by UFlex Limited.