Europe’s soft drinks industry is a firm supporter of the circular economy principle outlined in the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan. Circularity presents a real opportunity for our generation and while we have already done a lot, we recognise there is still much to be done.  Read more here about the actions we are taking across a range of areas.

UNESDA position paper on the Circular Economy Action Plan

UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe and its members have been driving sustainability throughout their value chain for decades. Packaging has an important role to play for the beverage industry, keepings its products safe, transportable and convenient for consumers. UNESDA is also a firm believer that packaging is a resource that should never be wasted. That’s why the soft drinks industry is taking numerous actions to achieve full circularity and support the Commission’s agenda to accelerate the transition towards a green economy.

Making Europe’s economy circular: the time is now

By Tudy Bernier, Senior Policy Manager, UNESDA

We are enthused to have sight of the Commission’s much anticipated Circular Economy Action Plan. The circular economy lies at the very heart of the Commission’s new regenerative growth strategy for Europe and UNESDA is fully committed to supporting the transition. As we embark on this next phase of Europe’s Circular Economy strategy, our industry needs three things: legal certainty, a long-term vision and a holistic approach, working in partnership with all actors. We need to create efficient collection schemes to increase collection of all beverage containers to ensure the availability of high quality rPET and continue to recycle aluminium and glass in a sustainable way. Only by doing this, can we guarantee a well-functioning internal market for secondary material.

Our packaging – sustainability and circularity

PET collection rates across Europe

Beverage packaging is Europe’s most collected item.  See here to explore the PET collection rates across the continent.

Top countries

Germany 95%
Denmark 94%*
Finland 92%
Lithuania 92%
Norway 88%
Croatia 86%
Estonia 86%
Belgium 85%
Sweden 84%
Iceland 83%
Austria 73%
Czech Republic 67%
Netherlands 65%
Spain 60%*

*Slovakia – Source: Institute for Environment Policy report, November 2018
*Denmark – Source: 2019 data from Dansk Retursystem A/S
*Spain – Source: 2017 Ecoembes

How enhanced recycling can help increase the supply of recycled PET

More collection = more recycling = more rPET in our bottles

Boosting the collection and recycling of PET bottles is a key goal for both the EU and UNESDA.  In addition to reducing plastic in the waste stream, it will also create a reliable supply of food-grade quality rPET.

In 2018 UNESDA members pledged that by 2025 PET bottles would contain a minimum 25% recycled content on average across Europe.  This target has subsequently become mandatory under EU law and the goal of the European Plastics Strategy is to ensure that ten million tonnes of recycled plastics find their way into new products by 2025.

Soft drinks companies have been instrumental in setting up and running many of the packaging collection schemes across Europe.  The sector supports both deposit return schemes (DRS) for beverage packaging and extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes which cover various packaging types and materials.

 Technologies to boost collection and recycling

There are a several different recycling technologies and Europe must leverage each of them if it is to achieve its goals:

  • Mechanical recycling – the grinding, washing, separating drying, re-granulating, stripping and compounding of plastics as widely used today;
  • Solvent purification – dissolving plastic in a solvent with a series of purification steps to separate the additives and impurities before the plastic is reused;
  • Enhanced recycling – the process of depolymerisation which breaks down the molecular bonds of the plastic into its original monomers and oligomers;
  • Feedstock recovery – heating the plastics to convert them back into basic petrochemicals so that they can be used to produce new plastic.

By combining the use of mechanically recycled PET, enhanced recycled PET and renewable PET, it is possible to reduce the carbon footprint of packaging while delivering products in a safe and sustainable packaging.

Through harnessing all recycling technologies we can unleash the full potential for rPET and also capture other plastics such as polyolefins which cannot be recycled mechanically

 Quality, safety, availability and affordability

Increasing the use of rPET will depend on its quality, safety, availability and affordability.  The different recycling processes need to adhere to a standard set of principles that allow us to foster new technologies and infrastructures and ensure that all recyclates are safe and of a quality that is suitable for the production of food-grade quality rPET.

The soft drinks industry is calling for:

  •  swift authorisation of mechanical recycling techniques
  • an unleashing of innovation in driving new recycling technologies
  • a harmonising of definitions and approaches across EU markets
  • a supportive legal framework for alternative plastic recovery technologies like enhanced recycling and feedstock recycling
  • simplification and harmonisation of those processes to unleash the full potential of the new technologies under the REACH registration
  • traceability – through verification and certification schemes

Making circularity a reality – creating the bottles of the future

The European Commission’s ambition to increase the uptake of recycled plastics is an essential step towards realising a circular economy.  With a harmonised, legal framework and measures to assure availability and affordability of recycled materials compared with virgin materials, Europe can realise more sustainable packaging in a circular economy.

By combining each of the different recycling technologies we will be able to realise our ambition of sustainable packaging.  Harnessing the very latest innovations we will build the bottle of the future – a bottle that is virtually free from virgin-plastic.

Glass packaging – closing the glass loop

Glass is made from sand, soda, ash and limestone and is an established packaging material for soft drinks. It is an inert and one layer material, and therefore it protects but does not interact with the products it contains.

It is 100% recyclable and can be recycled infinitely into a bottle-to-bottle loop. On average 76% of glass containers put on the market in the EU are collected for recycling based on 2017 data, and most of them are put back into the loop. For every tonne of recycled glass, 1.2 tonnes of virgin raw materials are saved, about 580kg CO2 are avoided, air pollution is reduced by 20% and water pollution cut by 50%.

The industry wants to optimise the glass bottle-to-bottle loop as the beating heart of an authentic Circular Economy. With this purpose, FEVE recently established Close the Glass Loop – the glass packaging value chain platform which unites the glass collection and recycling value chain to establish a material stewardship programme that will result in more bottle-to-bottle recycling.

UNESDA is a founding member of the Close the Glass Loop platform.

Close Glass the Loop wants to achieve 90% glass packaging collection for recycling by 2030 and to improve the quality of recycled glass for bottle-to-bottle production by mobilising partnerships at EU level.

Its goal is to:

  • optimise and develop sorting and treatment systems to increase yields from all collection systems and generate more furnace-ready cullet.
  • Exchange of knowledge and best practice in collection, sorting & treatment systems between countries
  • Promote separate collection of glass packaging to increase quantity & quality of untreated cullet

The European Container Glass Industry is actively committed to achieving its business goals which are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. Other initiatives, such as the Furnace of the Future, have been launched for this purpose – see

Further information on glass packaging can be found here:

Beverage Cartons contributing to a low carbon circular economy

Cartons are a paper-based packaging used to protect and distribute food and beverage products. They can be stored for up to 12 months without refrigeration or need for added preservatives – so saving on both energy costs and carbon emissions associated with refrigeration.

On average, cartons comprise (by weight):

  • 75% paperboard – a renewable material coming from responsibly managed forests, certified to credible forest management standards.
  • 21% polymers – mostly polyethylene, to prevent leakage
  • 4% aluminum – to protect drinks and food from light and oxygen

Recycling of beverage cartons in the EU has grown steadily in recent years. In 2018 on average, 49% of all beverage cartons in the EU were recycled – with rates in some countries like Belgium and Germany of over 70%.

Collection is the pre-condition to recycling and cartons are either collected with lightweight packaging or with paper-based packaging. Of the ca. 900.000 T of beverage cartons put on the market, the majority is collected with light weight packaging.

Collecting all packaging materials separately significantly increases the volume of materials available for recycling, which in turn creates a more predictable, high quality waste stream.

There is strong incentive for investment and innovation in sorting and recycling technologies, that create green economic growth.  Several new developments and projects aimed at recycling the PolyAl elements of beverage cartons are already operational or will become so during 2020/2021. This will ensure that all the components of beverage cartons are duly (material wise) recycled.

Beverage cartons contribute to a low carbon circular economy:

  • Paperboard comes from responsibly managed forests, certified to rigorous sustainability standards.
  • They are designed using optimally natural resources: the product-to-packaging ratio for beverage cartons is as high as 96:4, meaning only four percent is packaging while the remaining weight is the product inside.

Further information on the sustainability of beverage cartons can be obtained from ACE – The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment at

Ambitions to make plastic packaging more sustainable

By 2025:

  • 100% of soft drinks plastic packaging to be recyclable
  • PET bottles to contain a minimum of 25% recycled content

Ambitions aim to achieve circularity through

  • Recyclability
  • Use of Recycled Content
  • Collection
  • Reuse

Representing our sector’s contribution to the EU’s bold objectives and calls for action on packaging sustainability

Contributing towards building a circular model for plastic packaging

Beverage packaging is already the most collected packaging in the EU

How well-designed DRS can help reach the SUP targets

Natural Mineral Waters Europe and UNESDA are calling for a wide deployment of well-designed deposit return schemes to meet the collection and rPET targets of the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive. Read here the 6 fundamental design criteria they believe will improve DRS efficiency.

For more information on UNESDA’s vision for DRS as part of the EU Circular Economy Action Plan, please read it here:

Action by our national associations to support circularity

The Belgian Federation of Bottled Water and Soft Drinks Producers (FIEB) has presented a number of their achievements on sustainability and packaging. FIEB has committed to make packaging 100% recyclable/reusable/biodegradable by 2025.

In France, the French Soft Drinks Association (BRF) took the commitment to have 25% of rPET by 2015. In 2018, they had already reached 30%

The Danish Brewers’ Association had made a pledge on behalf of its members with an ambition to reach at least 50% recycled plastic in all its PET bottles in 2025 (average).

The Spanish Soft Drinks Association published its annual report at the end of 2018. Soft drink packaging in 2017 is 22% lighter than in 2000.

Action by UNESDA corporate members to support circularity

Our members have been driving sustainability throughout their value chains for more than 30 years – from reducing and reusing water, energy and raw materials in their production through to setting-up and running packaging waste collection and recycling systems across Europe.  Read more here:

Ensuring that its packaging can be collected for recycling is critical to Coca-Cola European Partners’ (CCEP) business.

In 2019, Coca‑Cola HBC was again named Europe’s most sustainable beverage company by the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

86% of Danone’s total packaging – and 77% of its plastic packaging – is reusable, recyclable or compostable.

Nestlé Waters applies ‘recyclable by design’ principles and carries out lifecycle assessments to minimise the environmental footprint of all its beverage bottles.

PepsiCo’s vision is to build a world where plastics need never become waste.  To realise this the company must reduce, recycle & reinvent its plastic packaging.

Red Bull cans are infinitely recyclable.

Packaging is a central theme within Refresco’s wider sustainability approach. Its motto is Reduce & Recycle.

Suntory Beverage Food Europe has unveiled a path to reach 100% sustainable plastic bottles, within a decade.

In 2019 the first ever Coke sample bottle made using recovered and recycled marine litter was introduced. A food and drink packaging first.

Environmental stewardship

Environmental stewardship is an ongoing priority for the sector. UNESDA members recognise that the sector has a role to play in taking up its responsibility to manage resources and reduce waste throughout its production processes and distribution activities. We focus on a handful of core areas:

Water management

Water is a key ingredient for our industry, representing some 90% of a soft drink. Water efficiency, conservation and protection are a focus. Manufacturing operations aim to optimise water use and treat wastewater appropriately. In Europe, some companies have been able to reduce their water ratio all the way to 1.2 litres per litre of beverage produced. Furthermore, waste from production processes such as cooling and rinsing is then internally reused to clean trucks and floors.


Packaging too is a key resource for the sector and we have taken a number of steps to introduce sustainable packaging policies as well as effective systems for reduction, recovery, recycling and reuse. UNESDA is a founding member of the PET Platform which gathers key players in the packaging chain and is committed to the use of 100% recycled plastic. The industry currently exceeds legal packaging recovery targets in a range of 50-80%. Read more here.

Energy use

Across all of our industry energy is an important issue and we are focused on driving energy efficiency, conservation and reduction wherever possible. Our industry is part of a wider supply chain and we work closely with stakeholders and their partners to contribute jointly to a better environment. For example, truck sharing and the introduction of energy efficient and hybrid distribution vehicles has allowed us to reduce fleet emissions. At bottling plants, the energy use ratio is about 0.4-0.6MJ per litre of beverage produced and new technologies aim to reduce this figure by 50%.

Waste reduction

UNESDA members view environmental protection as a joint societal effort that requires a common, consistent and coordinated approach.  We work to manage resources and reduce waste throughout our production processes and distribution activities.  Ours is primarily a local industry. The majority of ingredients used in our beverages are sourced locally and production is situated relatively close to the markets and consumers it serves, resulting in low food miles.

Innovation and investment in the area of environmental sustainability will continue to be a key priority for the industry in the years ahead.

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