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Why Tetra Paks aren’t green (even though they’re ‘recyclable’)

Tetra Paks are the cartons you find in the shops that are used to package long-life milk, juice and various other liquids. You can also find products like chopped tomatoes packaged in this way. These containers allow food to be protected from contamination by bacteria and other microbes, meaning products can sit on the shelf for months without going bad.

Once they’re used, Tetra Pak assure us that they can be recycled.

That sounds great, but I was left wondering…how exactly are Tetra Paks recycled? Aren’t they made up of layers of different material? Is it even possible to separate them, and then what happens to the materials?

After some investigating, my conclusion is that Tetra Paks aren’t a green solution at all. Here’s why.

What is a Tetra Pak made from?

Tetra Paks are made up of a number of components which are layered: paperboard (made from wood), polyethylene (a type of plastic) and aluminum. These different components give Tetra Paks their unique properties: keeping the liquids in but the microbes out, and a strong but lightweight container.

Packaging material, aseptic carton package

When a Tetra Pak is recycled, all these component parts need to be separated out.

What Does Recycling Mean?

Whilst recycling can be thought of as a way of converting waste into a new material, more accurately it means a process to return material to a previous stage in a process that operates as a cycle. After all, the word is “re-cycling”. The idea is to take a used product and turn them back into the same type of product, such as glass bottles being melted down and formed into new glass bottles. There is no loss of quality, so this recycling of glass can go on forever.

When a product doesn’t get turned back into the same product, but one of lesser quality (as with plastic recycling) it isn’t recycled, it’s downcycled. Products that are downcycled often only undergo a limited number of cycles (maybe as few as 2) before reaching the end of their useful lives and ending up in landfill.

For Tetra Pak to be truly recycled, these layers of paperboard, polyethylene and aluminium would need to be separated out, and reformed to make new Tetra Pak cartons. However, that isn’t what happens.

How is a Tetra Pak Recycled?

I’ve found not one, but two different videos that explain how Tetra Paks are recycled: how they are sorted into their component parts and what happens to these parts.

The first is a somewhat cheesy video from India, which seems to be a Tetra Pak promotional video that lasts four minutes. The second is a UK/German video that runs for less than two minutes.

Whilst you watch them, think about the following:

  • How much energy is involved in the process?
  • How are the post-recycled materials used?
  • Where is the ‘cycle’ part of the process?

Why Tetra Paks aren’t Sustainable

If Tetra Paks are recyclable, why aren’t they green? Let’s look at the different components, where they come from and what happens to them once the cartons are empty.

Paperboard (Wood)

Tetra Pak have devoted a significant amount of their website space to telling customers how sustainable their containers are. As well as talking at length about Tetra Paks being recyclable, they inform us that Tetra Pak source FSC-certified wood for 41% of their cartons worldwide (2013 figure). This equated to 32 billion FSC-labelled Tetra Paks reaching consumers in 2013.

Let’s look at this another way.

If 32 billion containers is 41%, then the amount of non-FSC wood Tetra Paks reaching consumers would be 46 million. 46 million containers made from non-renewable sources? That is a lot of wood. Tetra Pak might have a goal to reach 100% FSC-wood, but it isn’t happening now.

When this paperboard is recycled, it isn’t turned back into new Tetra Paks. It is unclear whether this is because their paperboard needs to come from virgin sources to avoid contamination (as is the case with plastic), or whether the quality of the recycled paperboard isn’t high enough to make new cartons, or some other reason. Whatever the reason, it is turned into office paper.

Plastic and Aluminium

The other two layers of the Tetra Pak, polyethylene (plastic) and aluminium, cannot be separated by the recycling process and remain combined as a “polymer”. The uses for this “polymer” is in the cement industry, or as low-cost housing material. The question arises, is there a genuine demand for this product, or is there a market because of an abundant supply of this waste material?

The fact that it gets reused and isn’t sent to landfill is great, except it doesn’t serve to make Tetra Paks a “green” solution. These cartons use fresh plastic and aluminium to make their cartons, and the waste products becomes something else entirely. Thus it is a linear system, not a cycle – and anything that is linear cannot be sustainable long-term.

A Word on Recycling Tetra Paks

The other thing to alwyas remember about recycling, is just because something can be recycled, it doesn’t mean that it will be recycled. The two are very different. For example, in the UK access to recycling facilities is as high as 85%; in the USA it’s nearer 40%, and in other countries like China, considerably less. Tetra Pak estimate global recycling was less than 25% in 2013. In Denmark in 2007, 33% of Tetra Paks were incinerated: resources turned to toxic ash.

The Conclusion

Tetra Pak may want to be sustainable; they may want to use 100% FSC wood and achieve 100% recycling rates, but they still have a long way to go. Even if they achieve this, there’s no getting away from the fact that Tetra Pak production is a linear process. Tetra Paks are turned into different post-consumer products, meaning a constant supply of fresh virgin material (wood, oil and aluminum) is needed for their manufacture.

Tetra Paks – What Are The Alternatives?

  • Choose glass over Tetra Pak containers. Glass can be truly recycled back into new glass products. You can find wine, milk, juice and oil in glass so there’s no need to buy Tetra Paks for these items.
  • For items like chopped tomatoes, use steel cans, which can also be truly recycled.
  • Consider refillables, or making your own. Juicing your own fruit is far tastier than drinking pasteurized syrupy juice in cartons, and healthier too!
  • If you can’t avoid Tetra Paks, skip the single serve containers. Buy the largest size and decant into individual containers for lunches or when you’re out and about.

Did you know that Tetra Paks contained plastic and aluminium, and that they cannot be truly recycled? Did any of the statistics surprise you? Are Tetra Paks something that you regularly buy? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this so please leave a comment below!

Plastic recycling: What Those Numbers Actually Mean

With Plastic Free July just around the corner, I thought it might be helpful to talk about plastic recycling, and why it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Recycling gives the impression that you can consume something, and then dispose of the packaging in a responsible manner, free of all guilt. But whilst recycling is a great last resort when the only other option is landfill, it should be remembered that it is the LAST resort. Have you ever heard the mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’? There’s a reason that ‘recycle’ comes last! Now there’s a new mantra that is gaining popularity. This one goes ‘REFUSE, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle’. And that is what Plastic Free July is all about. Rather than worrying about disposing of plastic packaging responsibly, ask the question: do I actually need it in the first place?

If you’ve been happily consuming all that plastic because you know that you’ll recycle it responsibly when you’re done, maybe this post will change your mind. I used to be the same. But once I started to understand what plastic recycling actually meant, I began questioning everything I bought and I drastically reduced the plastic in my life.

So here is a guide to the different types of plastics, what they are used for and what they are recycled into – if they can actually even be recycled.

Let’s dispell a couple of myths!

Firstly, if you’re under the impression that your old plastic bottles can be recycled into shiny new plastic bottles, unfortunately you’re wrong! Plastic isn’t technically recycled, it’s downcycled, meaning it’s used to create a product of inferior quality and productivity. So whilst glass can (in theory) be recycled an infinite amount of times, plastic can only go through two or three cycles.

Secondly, just because you see the ‘recycling arrow’ on your plastic packaging it doesn’t mean that it’s actually recyclable. The arrow is meaningless. The number tells us what the plastic is made from, and so you can work out if it can be recycled. Just because plastic has the potential to be recycled, it doesn’t mean that your local council actually recycles it, either.

Plastic recycling – a guide to the numbers

If you don’t want to read this list (I’ll take no offence!) allow me to summarise it here. The majority of plastic products are not commonly recycled, and when they are, the major product is plastic ‘wood’ and garden furniture. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen any attractive plastic recycled garden furniture, and I definitely have no desire for fake plastic wood products. Considering how much plastic gets recycled each year, that’s a LOT of plastic garden furniture. So rather than helping the environment by recycling your plastic, you’re actually adding more eyesores to public spaces everywhere!

If you do want to know more about what different types of plastics there are, whether they can be recycled and what they become, read on.

1. PET or PETE: polyethylene terephthalate

This is the plastic used to make clear bottles for soft drinks and water, plastic food jars for sauces and condiments.

Recycled into: bottles for cleaning products and non-food items; egg cartons; fibres/textiles (carpet, fleece, filling for winter coats).

2. HDPE: high-density polyethylene

This is the opaque plastic used to make milk bottles, oil/vinegar bottles, ice-cream tubs, bottles for toiletries and cleaning products.

Recycled into: recycling and compost bins; pipes; crates; flower pots; outdoor furniture.

3. PVC: polyvinyl chloride

This is the clear plastic used as food wrap, some squeezy bottles. Also used in flooring, plumbing pipes and hoses, children’s toys.

This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for: pipe, floor coverings.

4. LDPE: low-density polyethylene

This is used to make cling-film, most squeezy bottles, food bags and plastic carrier (shopping) bags.

This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for outdoor furniture; fence posts; tubing.

5. PP: polypropylene

This is the plastic used to make dairy food containers such as yoghurt pots and cheese containers, margarine containers, Tupperware and other plastic food storage boxes, and medicine bottles. Most plastic bottle tops are made out of this.

This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for outdoor furniture and planters.

6. PS: polystyrene

This includes colourless, transparent polystyrene and expanded polystyrene, which is more commonly known as styrofoam. This is used for takeaway food containers, hot beverage containers, food produce boxes and deli packaging.

This is not commonly recycled and predominantly makes two products, insulation and plastic ‘timber’. To recycle it has to be mixed in with new ‘virgin’ polystyrene.

7. Other

This includes polycarbonate, polylactide, bioplastics made from corn starch, acrylonitrile styrene, and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. Products made from these include high quality kitchen plastics, CDs, toys such as Lego, protective helmets, toothbrushes, the outer covers for electrical equipment such as printers, and medical storage containers.

These are not commonly recycled (and obviously depend on the material), but can be made into plastic ‘timber’ products.