Tetra Pak Promotes Packaged Sustainability, Part I

Tetra_Pak.jpgTetra 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.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.

11 responses

  1. In Alberta, we get 5 cents, for recyclable containers less than 1 L and 10 Cents if they are 1 Litre or larger. This includes Tetra Packs. More governments, such as USA and Australia need to enforce recycling so that there is incentive not to just throw containers in the landfill, or worse, on the side of the road!!

  2. I work as a CNA in a nursing home and I can tell you that each resident there recieves at least 4 milk and juice cartons on their meal trays, all made of the tetra pak. I have been trying to find a redemption center in the area (I live in Maine) that will recycle the tetra pak, but no luck. I think this is a huge problem, one that needs to be solved! Tetra pak cartons are used nationwide in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes; however, there is no nationwide recycling program for that material.

  3. I also live in lovely “green” San Francisco and am shocked that they do not recycle TetraPak considering how many other California communities do. As a result I’ve been considering options of how to eliminate this problem. And of course the simplest solution is to not buy anything with TetraPak anymore. What would it take for SF to start up a program that takes TetraPak?

  4. I too work in a place that uses Tetra Pak. For years I have wondered if these products are actually Eco-friendly and low impact as they claim to be, but as you have noticed in your research, data is not collected as a priority for sustainable development when it comes to actual cartons being recycled and the impact that recycling takes on our earth. The amount of energy used to recycle simple items is huge. Products containing different types of recyclable materials use even more energy. So I guess as long as we are confined to this conventional system of mass production on global economical levels tetra paks are a good intentioned “fix”. But maybe the bigger problem to tackle is local sustainability that does not require processed packaging for millions of containers, and of course shipping and storage

  5. Pingback: Clicklist: Are Tetrapaks sustainable? | green LA girl
  6. Burn ’em in incinerators with scrubbers and steam generation setups. At least you’re recovering some energy from the tetra paks and not allowing the dioxins in the paper to pollute land fills forever.

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