‘Something this radical is not easy’: Inside Carlsberg’s quest for a fully fibre-based beer bottle

Carlsberg’s group sustainability director Simon Boas Hoffmeyer discusses the brewer’s seven-year journey that has seen research into bio-based beer bottles reach an important milestone in the form of consumer-facing trials of 8,000 of its new “Fibre Bottles” across Europe.

‘Something this radical is not easy’: Inside Carlsberg’s quest for a fully fibre-based beer bottle

The bottles will be rolled out across Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, United Kingdom, Poland, Germany and France.

Danish brewer Carlsberg has been one of the long-standing pioneers of the corporate sustainability movement. Its “Together Towards Zero” strategy was one of the first to truly embrace the need for 1.5C science-based targets and has catalysed progress towards goals to reach zero carbon emissions at breweries and a 30% reduction in beer-in-hand emissions by 2030.

The latter goal has seen Carlsberg turn to common yet effective efforts to reduce emissions, including lightweighting materials and packaging and incorporating recycled content.

Yet as Carlsberg’s group sustainability director Simon Boas Hoffmeyer explains to edie, the company is now exploring more “radical” solutions to drive progress towards its climate goals, while giving consumers more choice on the sustainability of the goods that they buy.

“Part of my role is to ensure that all the types of packaging that we make are made more and more sustainable over time,” Boas Hoffmeyer tells edie. “We can reduce the amount of glass we use and the energy used to help with production and we can do something on almost all types of packaging.

“But I think it is important to live in a world where there is diversity in consumer choice, not one where you’re forced to drink out of one particular packaging because someone has streamlined it and made it more sustainability. So if we can make the impacts of all our packaging smaller and smaller, and in some cases maybe even make positive contributions to planet, then I think that’s a great offer to have.”

It is this mindset that has seen Carlsberg embark on a seven-year journey to develop bio-based beer bottles.

Carlsberg has been researching and developing the feasibility of bio-based bottles since 2015 and in June 2022 was finally able to confirm plans to trial 8,000 of its new “Fibre Bottles” across Europe.

The outer bottle consists of sustainably sourced wood fibre, produced by Paboco, which is working with a variety of companies to develop paper and bio-based bottles. Each bottle consists of a plant-based polymer lining, developed by Carlsberg’s partner Avantium, that is made from natural raw materials that are compatible with plastic recycling systems.

Carlsberg also claims that the bottles can “degrade” naturally, should they fail to be placed into recycling systems.

The progress of the bio-based bottle has been three years in the making. In 2019, Danish brewer Carlsberg unveiled prototypes of the world’s first beer bottles made from recyclable and bio-based materials. Boas Hoffmeyer does admit that delays have ensued as a result of the pandemic, but he has always remained confident in the vision of the Fibre Bottles.

“There’s no doubt that we had delays,” he says, referencing the pandemic. “But its not something that that scared me, so to speak. We never doubted whether we would be able to bring it into the hands of consumers.

“We have of course sometimes wanted progress to happen faster, and I’ve also been in patient. Something that is this radical is not easy, and I think we have just been learning together with our partners continuously.”

Indeed, the creation of the Fibre Bottles has seen Carlsberg partner up with a number of innovative and likeminded companies.

Back in 2019, the launch of the first prototype kick-started the formation of Paboco, the Paper Bottle Company, which is a joint venture between renewables material company BillerudKorsnäs and plastic bottle manufacturing specialist Alpla.

On the day of its formation, Paboco launched a paper bottle community. The Absolut Company is one of the founding pioneers of this community and has been joined by The Coca-Cola Company, Carlsberg and L’Oréal. These founding members have also unveiled plans for paper or bio-based packaging through this collaborative initiative.

Paboco has been working tirelessly with Carlsberg to help with the formation of the “outer shell” of the Fibre Bottle. For the internal mould, Carlsberg has signed up with Avantium, which has also worked on the Paboco formation.

Avantium’s solution is a plant-based, recyclable and high-performance polymer PEF (polyethylene furanoate) that acts as the inner part of the Fibre Bottle. Boas Hoffmeyer notes that one of the qualities of PEF is that it has superior barrier properties, which in turn protects that taste and fizziness of the beer and creates a longer shelf life.

The PEF is also better performing in terms of strength, compared to traditional plastics, which allows for a thinner layer and reduced the amount of material required and associated carbon emissions.

Carlsberg has analysed the prototype bottles through lifecycle assessment applications. Under its current projections, the company believes that the fibre bottle can achieve a carbon footprint that is 80% lower than current single-use glass bottles.

Carlsberg is aiming for the Fibre Bottle to achieve the same low carbon footprint as the refillable glass bottle, which is currently the best-performing primary packaging when collected and reused in efficient systems.

Boas Hoffmeyer notes that while other materials like recycled plastics (rPET) can perform strongly on lifecycle assessments, the use and scaling up of PEF was crucial to the development of the bottle and that as efficiencies in production are improved other time, he is confident the material choice will be the right one from both a carbon and quality standpoint.

Indeed, last year Carlsberg and Avantium signed a Joint Development Agreement to develop several PEF packaging applications, including the Fibre Bottle. Carlsberg has since signed “a conditional offtake agreement” with Avantium to secure a fixed volume of PEF from a flagship manufacturing plant that Avantium is aiming to start-up in 2024.

Consumer confidence

While that scale-up takes place, Carlsberg will seek feedback on the Fibre Bottles across the European markets where it is being introduced – including the UK.

There is plenty of research that suggests that consumers want to purchase more sustainable goods, but articulating the green credentials of this journey to date on the side of a bottle is no easy task.

In a current environment where greenwash is rife, Carlsberg and Boas Hoffmeyer want to ensure they’re getting the message right in a clear and accurate manner.

“We’re excited to get feedback,” he adds. “Did the consumers get the message that this is supposed to be a lower-carbon alternatives to the single use glass? What will their questions and reflections be? And do they understand the terms like bio-based?

“That’s exactly the type of feedback we will get from the markets and this will be valuable for the next version of the bottle.”

It’s not just the sustainability of the packaging that Carlsberg is keen to outline.

Carlsberg has also revealed that the beer inside the bottle will be more sustainable. In collaboration with barley malt supplier Soufflet, Carlsberg has used barley that has been cultivated using organic and regenerative agricultural practices. Cover crops were introduced in the barley fields to assist with regenerative farming processes.

Boas Hoffmeyer notes that the aim of this initiative isn’t just about “giving back to the planet”, but also helping farmers generate higher yields and potentially income through more sustainable practices.

“We can have a much bigger impact than just our crops because we can inspire farmers to start using regenerative practices, which creates the move to being more positive rather than just reducing the negative,” Boas Hoffmeyer adds.

“We are sustainability minded and want to do it for the sake of the planet, but there is definite evidence that you should do it for your bottom line, because basically you can obtain higher yields over time from regenerative grown crops. We want to help our farmers with that.”

Boas Hoffmeyer adds that this is a mindset that is shared across the business, that sustainability can yield co-benefits, provided it is grounded in science.

While the scale-up of the Fibre Bottle is a continuous journey, the company will continue to look back at its roots, ones that are still evident in its current science-based sustainability strategy.

“One thing that’s very important to us is actually having our foundations in science so that we don’t get caught up with any greenwashing issues. For us the success of this vision will mean that it is just really important to be focused on details and science. They will be our drivers.”

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