Tetra Pak is a nearly 60-year-old packaging and food processing company. It’s likely that Tetra Pak wrapped up many of the products sitting in your kitchen cupboards right now. One of its flagship packaging products is the rugged, paper-based cartons that are widely used for selling soy milk, soups and other liquid food and beverages. Last week I participated in a twitter conference that Tetra Pak hosted in order to spread a message of sustainability around this packaging type, also called aseptic paper packaging.
I should add that after I signed up to participate in the twittercon, TetraPak sent me two sample products packaged in the aseptic Tetra Pak: a bottle (or rather, carton) of wine and a carton of chicken broth. (I’m a vegetarian, so I’m looking for a home for the chicken broth. I also think they could have sent a product that is less energy-intensive than chicken broth. But I digress.)
Along with this product, the company sent along some printed information about these Tetra Pak cartons. They are made of 74 percent paper. They are lightweight and make up a smaller packaging-to-product ratio than other packaging forms. In other words, glass and plastic weigh more, which means they require more energy to transport. The square dimension of the cartons make them efficient in terms of load space – you can often load more cartons on a pallet than cans and bottles, for example.
And then there’s the wow factor: Tetra Pak packaging is shelf-stable, meaning the products (yep, milk) do not need to be refrigerated until the air-tight packaging is opened. So this means perishable items such as milk can be stored for more than a year without refrigeration, and that a lot less energy is required for storage.
All in all, Tetra Pak figures that its packaging has a smaller carbon footprint than polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high density polyethylene (HDPE) or glass. A 32-ounce beverage container made by Tetra Pak represents 126 kg of CO2, while glass packaging for the same size drink represents 238 kg CO2, according to the company (and backed up, it says, by third party tests).
Great. So far, so sustainable. But the end of a Tetra Pak’s life isn’t always very green. The blame here doesn’t totally hang on Tetra Pak, however.
First off, I was a bit surprised to even learn that the aseptic packaging can be recycled, since it is comprised of three materials – 74 percent paper, with aluminum (the liner) and low density polyethylene film (the lid) accounting for the rest. Recycling packaging that is comprised of multiple materials is often harder and more expensive than recycling pure stock. For this reason, as I have often been told by folks in the packaging industry, mixed materials are sometimes not recyclable.
In fact, I can’t recycle Tetra Pak cartons here in lovely, “green” San Francisco. That doesn’t mean they are not recyclable. It means that for various economic or infrastructure-based reasons, San Francisco has chosen not to collect the material for recycling.
Tetra Pak’s aseptic paper packaging is collected for recycling in many California communities – and in towns and cities in 25 other states across the country. I asked Tetra Pak what it would take to get more municipalities to recycle the cartons. I’ve not yet received an answer. I also asked what percentage of the 22 billion Tetra Pak cartons that are sold annually are collected and recycled, and how many are land-filled. The Tetra Pak reps on the twittercon said they didn’t have that data at hand. That’s a shame. And it’s also odd; seems like the kind of info they should have had at hand for a conference on sustainability.
Now, unlike glass, old Tetra Pak cartons do not get recycled into new Tetra Pak cartons. When material is recycled, its three constituents are separated. The paper is reused in different paper and tissue products and the aluminum and PE are used either for fuel stock or are recycled into other types of products. There are hundreds of plants around the world that recycle the packaging.
In some parts of the world, recycling rates for aseptic paper are high. This is especially true in parts of Europe, where government mandates comprehensive recycling. The United States does not have that kind of regulation. So does that mean that Tetra Pak’s cartons are less sustainable here than they are in other parts of the world? Perhaps.
But more important is that major cities in the United States aren’t recycling their share of the 22 billion Tetra Paks that their citizens consume each year. What are the barriers to making Tetra Pak recycling more widely available?
I’ll try to find answers to that question in part two of this carton confab series. In the meantime, chime in with your own opinions.