Ribena bottles on the production line

Soft drinks industry faces a recycled plastic shortage, says Ribena maker

Image credit: Suntory Beverage and Food GB&I

Europe will need three times more recycled plastic if all soft drinks manufacturers are to make the switch, the company behind Ribena and Lucozade has warned.

European manufacturers are increasingly committing themselves to becoming more sustainable. In the soft drinks industry, this looks like companies making a switch to 100 per cent recycled bottles. However, in order to do so, Europe might have to drastically increase its production of recycled plastic. 

Suntory Beverage and Food GB&I, the company behind soft drinks such as Lucozade and Ribena, has pledged to ensure that all its on-the-go 500ml bottles – excluding the cap and label – are made from 100 per cent recycled plastic by the end of the year. The move includes Lucozade Sport, Lucozade Energy, Orangina and Ribena.

“It’s the result of years of hard work, and whilst reaching this milestone is a cause for celebration, much still needs to be done in terms of recycling infrastructure,” said Liz Nieboer, head of sustainability at Suntory.

Plastic waste and pollution is a pressing global concern. According to a report released in October last year, plastics are on track to contribute more climate change emissions than coal plants by 2030.

Europe currently produces around 1.3 million tonnes of recycled plastic – also known as rPET – of good-enough quality to be used in the packaging of food and beverages. If all European manufacturers were to make the transition to only using this material, the production of rPET would need to increase by 3.56 million tonnes to meet the rise in demand.

For example, although Suntory’s Lucozade Sport, Orangina and Ribena bottles are already made from 100 per cent rPET, the company has revealed it would need additional supplies of rPET in order to do the same with Lucozade Energy. 

Bottles on the production line

Bottles on the production line / Suntory Beverage and Food GB&I

Image credit: Suntory Beverage and Food GB&I

“There has been a historic under-investment in the UK’s recycling and collection infrastructures, meaning less than a third of bottles are turned back into bottles," Nieboer said. 

Recycled plastic has an average 79 per cent lower carbon footprint than “virgin” plastic, which would allow Suntory to save around 36,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. However, this move is also expected to lead to a 39 per cent increase in the cost of producing the soft drinks. 

In order to address industry shortages and meet UK requirements for 30 per cent recycled material in packaging, Suntory has invested in another plastic alternative: a 9,000-tonne resin containing 30 per cent content from innovative chemical recycling. This material is made by breaking plastic back down into its core elements, allowing it to be reformed into new food-grade rPET as if it were a virgin material.

Long term, alternative recycling methods such as chemical recycling will be key to ensure that plastics contaminated with food do not end up in landfill or incineration sites. Suntory also said action is needed to make plastics in the UK in a circular system without waste. The country's proposed plastic packaging tax, could perhaps be one of the measures that drive this transition. 

In the future, the use of recycled plastic could go far beyond soft drinks bottles, with this material being expected to be used as a substitute for wood, and even asphalt and cement

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