Circular economy is a topic featuring strongly in the European Green Deal, and major actors are stepping up to contribute across sectors, including Tetra Pak – global leader in food processing and packaging solutions. Having already worked with these challenges for a number of years, Tetra Pak sees the trifecta of industry, academia and large-scale research infrastructure such as ESS to be a powerful collaborative force to help solve sustainability challenges.
“We have a phrase we use in Tetra Pak from our founder that a package should save more than it costs,” shares Eva Gustavsson, Vice President D&E Materials & Package at Tetra Pak. “This has served us well over the years and continues to do so as circular economy has become one of the most important challenges to solve in the world right now.”
In contrast to the traditional make-use-dispose model of a linear economy, a circular economy aims to extend the life of what’s already made and prioritise renewable and reusable resources in new products, as well as enable more sharing and repair to sustain a healthy loop. For their packaging, Tetra Pak works according to four innovation objectives:
- Sustainable openings
- Renewable materials
- Promote recycling
- Recycled content
“This is quite a big challenge,” explains Gustavsson, “because our packages should protect the nutritional value and quality of the food for several months in ambient temperature. Our vision is to make food safe and available everywhere, and that comes with high demands on barriers, for example. We need to transform some of our materials into new ones, still providing all these values to keep food safe.”
Collaboration is key for circular economy
Tetra Pak works cross-functionally from an early stage with internal competence networks where specialists share knowledge and create joint value. The company also has ongoing relationships with a number of universities and research facilities and is now looking forward to expanding that collaboration with ESS.
“We believe, and it’s a shared view among other external stakeholders, that collaboration between companies, universities and facilities like ESS is powerful,” says Mats Qvarford, Strategic Partnership Manager at Tetra Pak responsible for external partnerships within D&E Materials & Package. “We need to share challenges and work in parallel, where we as an industry stand for the application, universities provide the foundational research, and ESS offers the opportunities with neutrons, for example.”
ESS recently had the opportunity to present at Tetra Pak’s joint seminar series with Lund University, called Science and Innovation Talks. The popularity of these seminars through the years is a clear reflection of the eagerness to learn and collaborate across disciplines, and attendees expressed a growing interest for what can be done with neutrons after ESS’s presentation.
“The reason our seminars are booked so quickly is because learning is energising,” says Gustavsson, “and both learning and energy are vital for the value we need to deliver. Early collaboration in research to fully understand phenomena and alternatives adds speed in development, ensures higher accuracy, and means shorter time to market.”
New ways to characterise materials with ESS
The types of advanced characterisation methods that ESS will offer can be of value early in the development process for companies when there are a lot of uncertainties and a need to explore properties and behaviours of new materials.
“One of the keys to innovating and solving challenges fast is being able to characterise the materials and processes,” says Gustavsson. “For example, with new barrier materials, we need to create new sealing processes. To study how these materials behave and interact during the forming and sealing processes are good examples of how we can really benefit from ESS and what can be studied there.”
“What we find very appealing with ESS is that there are opportunities to see light elements inside metals, polymers or cellulous fibres, for instance, which can add to our existing work with x-ray methods,” explains Qvarford. “Also, characterising while things are moving – in operandi – could open up new opportunities for us to study what happens in manufacturing processes. For example, what happens in our filling machines when we do polymer welding to make our packages tight, moulding of caps and closures, etc. We need to understand even better how it works with today’s materials and how we can optimise new sustainable materials for the future.
“This characterisation power of ESS is also highly relevant to study food inside our food production equipment during process steps such as mixing, heat treatment, and homogenisation,” continues Qvarford. “This will support food technology and application developments, such as those related to plant-based beverages and new protein sources.”
Interpreting the knowledge gap
Yet, it’s important to recognise that there is a knowledge gap in industry when it comes to understanding ways to use neutrons and the instruments available at ESS. “X-ray methods, for example, are well established and many within industry have some ideas how to use them for their applications, but fewer people have experience with neutron research,” notes Qvarford.
“Asking us ‘What do you want to do?’ would simply not work,” says Gustavsson. “Our expertise is around applications. It’s not so easy in the case of such a complicated area as neutron-based research for us to understand both the fundamental research and all the new opportunities with ESS. Therefore, we need to work in a new way. To conclude what we can actually do, we need help to bridge the gap between the deep understanding of neutrons and the application knowledge. We need an interpreter.”
Industry partnership for a brighter future
The importance for ESS to engage in new kinds of collaboration with industry and academia towards goals such as circular economy is clear – both in supporting specific applications and in educating on neutron findings for innovation needs applicable across industry sectors.
“We believe many more actors will now gather around the vision of fully renewable, fully recyclable, and increased use of recycled content, not just in the packaging industry but in other areas such as textiles,” affirms Gustavsson. “So there is an opportunity to build more knowledge within these areas among non-competing actors, where academia and ESS could play a role in understanding those phenomena.”
Qvarford represents Tetra Pak on the board of Treesearch, for example – Sweden’s largest research collaboration platform in the field of new sustainable materials from forest resources – where industrial partners from all across the forest sector in Sweden participate. Tetra Pak is also a member of LINX (Linking Industry to Neutrons & X-rays) in Denmark.
“The key for achieving success through collaborations is to be open and understand each other’s challenges and expertise,” says Gustavsson. “That’s when knowledge meets knowledge and becomes not just doubled but tripled. What we hope to gain from ESS is help in building the fundamental understanding of material properties and food processes for developing our new sustainable solutions. We want to build knowledge that contributes to a better society. We do that by developing sustainable solutions that protect food to make it safe for people while meeting changing demands, trends, and needs from consumers and society.”