Currently, all our drinks cartons are recycled overseas, but a new plant is the next step for an industry that is making good progress

The UK downed a staggering three billion drinks packaged in cartons last year. That’s a lot of empties to dispose of - and doing so has proved a tough challenge for local authorities.

If a carton is thrown away in one of the 361 local councils that recycles either through recycling banks or household collections, the carton currently has to be sent as far as Sweden, Spain or Italy to be broken down and recycled.
But if is binned in one of the 45 local councils that doesn’t recycle them, such as Winchester, Tunbridge Wells or Mansfield, the carton simply goes to landfill.

However, all this is set to change after the Alliance for Beverage Cartons & the environment (ACE) UK and paper and packaging producer Sonoco Alcore shook hands on a Landmark deal last week to open the UK’s first beverage carton recycling plant, near Halifax, early next year.

It means that, for the first time, cartons will not have to be sent abroad to be recycled and could potentially send recycling rates for beverage cartons soaring. Currently, 231, or 57%, of the UK’s 406 local councils do not offer kerbside recycling for cartons, although 361 offer collection banks.

So how big a deal is the plant for the industry? And what else does it need to do?

ACE UK members Tetra Pak, SIG Combibloc and Elopak have ploughed millions into increasing carton recycling rates, with impressive results. In 2006, 4% of councils offered a kerbside collection. This figure now stands at 43%. However, recycling schemes cost money and council budgets have been slashed under the government’s austerity measures.

This is why the industry believes the UK plant, which will have a capacity of 25,000 tonnes, will be a win-win solution for local authorities. Not only will councils be able to boost their environmental credentials by offering carton recycling, they’ll also be able to make some money out of recycling them in the UK because there will be a ready market. Sonoco Alcore plans to recycle the cartons into tubes and cores for industrial and consumer use, such as the rolls that hold cling film, textiles and paper.

“We’re not just saying to local authorities ‘recycling is a good thing’,” explains Rupert Maitland-Titterton, environment and communications director at Tetra Pak UK. “There will be real value in the raw material. The more money it makes, the more local councils will want to get involved.”

ACE UK has already identified a potential reduction of £3.6m in landfill taxes and gate fees for councils in 2013 if the plant runs at full capacity. It is also predicting that 10 extra local councils will collect cartons via kerbside schemes by the end of next year as a result of the new plant.

But the race is now on to make sure 100% of a carton is recycled at Halifax. The plant will recycle the paperboard that makes up 75% of a carton, but that still leaves 25% - made up of plastic and aluminium - left. The plastic ensures the carton is water-tight, while the aluminium increases the longevity of a product.

At the moment, Halifax won’t be recycling this 25%, despite similar mills in Europe recycling it into products such as roof tiles and oil. ACE UK insists it is “currently investigating options” and “fully expects to have a recycling solution in place in 2013”. However, progress is expected to be swift, because the technology is already in place.

Ultimately, if Halifax proves a success, more products could move into carton packaging, just like Sainsbury’s switch from tinned to carton tomatoes in January 2010. But before that happens, ACE UK has to prove to the remaining 45 local councils that empty cartons aren’t just a load of old rubbish.