Have you enjoyed some soy milk today? Perhaps a nice juice pack? Or added to your soup with a broth in a box? It’s so convenient, having packaging that allows you to not depend on refrigeration, and not be limited by short expiration dates. Most of those packages are created by Tetrapak. They seem benign, these aseptic packages, keeping the germs at bay, and storing well for another day.
And yet, there’s a problem: To get this level of non refrigerated packaging, it requires layering multiple materials upon one another, including cardboard, polythene, and aluminum. Add to this the plastic spout at the top, yet another material, and you’ll find that recycling these is beyond the means and willingness of most places.
According to this article, in Germany people must pay to dispose of them. Perhaps this is why some people have taken to bringing them to Tetrapak itself to recycle them. But even here, it only gets 70% of the particles, and with the popularity of these, it adds up quickly. What to do?
Apparently in Bogota, Columbia, they’ve been working on a method that gets 100% results. How do they do it? Nature. As they say in Biomimicry circles, nature knows best, and in this case, it works like this:
The solution involves the use a gel made out of extracts from fungi and algae on the shredded packaging. The process is helped by bacteria, the type usually found in the waste from the residues of fruit juice and milk, and would not be active in landfill sites. The different components can then be separated out by centrifuge because of the different specific gravities. The paper pulp will float, the plastics and aluminum separate due to their specific weight.
It is possible to fully separate the layers – and it can be done affordably, without any need for heat or pressure. Now it’s time to start training all engineers to really be innovative and start to think about how they will take their new products apart as well!
A little forethought can save a lot of time and energy afterwards fixing things. If you can prevent there even being a need to do a process such as this, you’d minimize even further the energy and effort required to take it back, making new use of these resources.
This train of thought was brought to you courtesy my research into the Five Kingdoms based model of design, which is a way of looking at how nature operates to achieve the goal of zero waste. More on that in a future article…
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. His overarching talent is “bottom lining” complex ideas, in a way that is understandable and accessible to a variety of audiences, internal and external to a company.