Tetra Pak: Renewable, Recyclable, and Disaster Risk-Managed?

Tetra Pak touts its own sustainability: namely that it’s made from renewable resources and can be re-used for kitschy products like wallets and boat racing. But as businesses begin to address the whole life-cycle of their products, Tetra Pak’s most innovatively sustainable use may be as a building material that’s even disaster risk-managed. Tetra Pak, when used as a building material withstands earthquakes, apparently.

Waste management is probably the least-sexy topic in supply chain eco-management. Recycling Tetra Pak for housing is a mutli-level waste-management story if there ever was one. It begins in Oaxaca, Mexico.

SiKanda is a social justice charity that promotes ecological awareness surrounding trashpickers. In developing countries (broadly) recycling infrastructure is grossly under-developed, at least as developed countries systems compare. These countries– India, China, Mexico are some examples– rely on different systems for recycling: instead of machines, they have human beings.

The trash pickers union– (pepenadores in Spanish) Guieniza AC represents one such system in Oaxaca, Mexico. “We’re the real ecologists,” says union leader Senora Rosalba. The trashpickers pick over the trash, extracting recyclable materials like plastics, Tetra Pak containers, and metals, sort them, and ship them off to be recycled and the remaining trash to the city dump.

SiKanda’s activities surrounding the union include a program to build eco-friendly housing for each of the 38 pepenpadores. According to SiKanda’s managing director, Aurelia Annino, the housing is not only made from recycled materials but was also designed to withstand earthquakes.

Each house uses 20,000 recycled (and cleaned) Tetra Paks, used as liner on either side of stacked PET plastic bottles, surrounded by cement. Each house costs just over $2,400. This kind of construction isn’t new: the technology was first used in Chile 20 years ago. Tetra Pak’s resilience against earthquakes (as a building material) was considered by the architects, according to Annino. The night the first house was finished this last August an earthquake measuring 5.6 in magnitude, struck the area.* The house survived, without structural damage.

Low-cost housing that’s structurally sound is huge challenge when it comes to adapting to and mitigating climate change, especially in urban “megacity” centres in emerging market countries– areas with a high population density especially in so-called ‘illegal’ housing settlements. In Mexico City for example, is home to 21 million people, by some estimates, two-thirds of which live in ‘slums.‘ The problem is that many “megacities” in these countries also tend to be more prone to natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. Slum housing is often constructed out of discarded materials and as it’s not structurally sound, is notoriously responsible for high levels of deaths when disaster strikes.

As Tetra Pak is hard to recycle– recycling it requires special systems– the ability to use it as an eco-friendly and disaster resilient building material addresses problems with the whole life-cycle of the product. As we hit peak oil, the need to address our consumption and waste patterns is especially important for manufacturers.

Tetra Pak, it appears, has only addressed helping to expand the special recycling systems necessary for its product. As Mario Abreu, head of Recycling and Supply Chain Support in the EU said in an interview last month, “Over the past years we’ve been looking for technologies that help increase the value of cartons for the recyclers, mostly by adding value to the recycling of the polymers and the foil in our packages.” Perhaps it’s time Tetra Pak looks in coordinating Tetra Pak collection for houses.

The SiKanda housing program uses Tetra Pak containers collected through school initiatives and by the pepenadores themselves.

For business using, scaling, and promoting waste management technologies** is a basic and central featuring to managing ecological impacts and indeed their carbon footprint in the supply chain. The Oaxacan pepenadores and the activities of SiKanda represent a dynamic example for both businesses and policy makers for how collaboration can address product-ecology and climate adaptation.

*Oaxaca is prone to both earthquakes and flooding, but the area where the Oaxacan penpadores live is higher ground and doesn’t tend to flood.

** where we understand technologies as bodies of knowledge, systems

For more information on climate adaption and mitigation activities in major cities see the organisation ICLEI

For more on public – private partnership initiatives in cities to deal with climate change see Connected Urban Development website

For more on the problems facing mega cities, see UN HABITAT

Ann Danylkiw is a freelance writer and digital media producer. Her background is Finance and Development Economics.While writing for Triple Pundit, she is currently producing her first social experiment / digital documentary, the 21HoursExperiment.com.Ann lives in London but visits 'home' in Wisconsin during the summer.