Sustainability, Waste

The Tetra Pak Versus Plastic & Glass Containers

In 2014, the EU member states produced around 240 million tonnes of municipal solid waste, representing approximately 475 kg per capita (Eurostat, 2018). On average, 27.5% of the produced waste goes to landfills, 26.6% is incinerated, 27.5% is recycled and the remaining 17.9% is composted or treated under alternative procedures. As a consequence, members of the EU have, over a 10-year period from 1995 to 2015, decreased the use of land as landfill by 54% and the rate of recycling has increased to 166% (Eurostat, 2018).

Special attention has been given to packaging waste, due to the environmental impact on landfills regarding its non-biodegradability. Germany led the initiative of packaging waste management, charging additional contributions to industries in order to pay in advance for the recovery of the disposal generated after product consumption. These resources are given to “der Grüne Punkt,” a trademark created in cooperation with the government and industries to manage the logistics chain of packaging waste. The extra costs associated with packaging recycling are commonly transferred to the retail price and therefore paid by consumers (da Cruz et al., 2014). At this stage of the product life cycle, the responsibility is also relayed to the consumer, who not only pays the additional cost but also sorts the waste to be collected afterwards.

To bring a practical example, a common and packaged edible good will be described to display its components, manufacturer and it’s potential and real disposal. Alternative containers will be also described for a brief comparison.

A vegan drink contained in a carton envelope was selected for this short analysis. Normally, one litre does not exceed €1.50. This beverage is packed in a Tetra Brik Aseptic box, easy recognisable by its brick-like rectangular shape, white opening and fully colour-printed sides. Labels such as FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and European Vegan Union show the product as “nature-friendly.” According to the FSC website, products marked with this logo must demonstrate responsible forest management, ensuring the consumer that the raw materials are sourced from renewable resources (FSC, 2016).

Tetra_Pak_boy_with_Tetra_Classic,_Italy

The carton container is developed by Tetra Pak. The large packaging manufacturer employs paperboard (74%) as the main raw material, and thin layers of polyethylene (22%) and aluminum foil (4%) for the inner lining (Tetra Pak, n.a.). Self-proclaimed as “the all-time packaging best-seller for long life liquid foods,” Tetra Pak distributed 184 billion containers in more than 170 countries in 2015 (Tetra Pak, n.a.). The popularity is due to its successful integration of the aseptic and ultra-high-temperature (UHT) processes into one, which allows perishable goods to be transported long distances without refrigeration. Using this system, product shelf life can be extended by at least one more year. Furthermore, the rectangular cartons weigh less than glass or metal, thereby saving space because of the efficient stacking capability that is not possible with cans or bottles (Kaye, 2011).

Despite Tetra Pak’s benefits for industries, logistics chains and consumers, a few questions arise about its disposal. Due to its composition, are these containers considered as paper wastes? Should these containers consequently go to the paper waste bin or to an alternative waste bin? How is the paperboard component separated from the other layers in order to be properly and completely recycled?

The last question can be answered by simply visiting one of Tetra Pak’s processing plants. For instance, there are plants in India, Germany and the U.K., where, under specific temperature and humidity conditions, the cardboard is taken away from a mixture of polyethylene and aluminium. Afterwards, this recovered sub-product is turned into new paper articles. Tetra Pak confirms that 1 out of 5 containers are recycled every year, which represents 23.6% of total containers sold on the global market. By 2020, the company has set the goal to recycle up to 40% of the packaging in circulation (Tetra Pak, n.a.). Another question arises after knowing this information; what, then, of the remaining 76.4% that is not recycled?

Alternative packaging for liquids exist in various forms. Glass for alcoholic beverages and soft drinks is commonly found in retail. According to Vossberg et al. (2014), 80% of recycled glass is the maximum amount that can be employed to produce new glass containers. In contrast, it is important to keep in mind that despite its high rate of re-usability, glass recycling also has an environmental impact. Large amounts of detergents, water and chemicals are required to ensure adequate cleaning. Another factor is that re-usable containers need to be more robust than a single-use container, which means a thicker container that results in an increased amount of resources consumed (Williams, 2013).

Plastic is also a widely-known alternative for dairy packaging. There are at least 12 types of plastic, of which polystyrene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are the most frequently employed for dairy products and drinking bottles (Williams, 2013). Plastic bottles represent the main collected product from municipal solid waste and the same author mentions that 20,000 PET bottles are required to make one tonne of the same material, demonstrating its potential as a recyclable good.

Coming back to the Tetra Pak, it can be pointed out that such packaging integrates to some extent the concept of circular economy (Braungart et al., 2007). The paper is taken from the biosphere (wood as a renewable resource) and the waste is recovered and taken to recycling plants. The resulting product from that recovered waste can be used as raw material for new paper-made articles. However, as one of the main attributes of Tetra Pak containers is asepsis, the resulting paper pulp from the recycling process cannot be reused in the production of new cartons. In contrast, glass and plastic containers can both be largely reused for food and liquid packaging (Williams, 2013).

The main characteristics of the Tetra Pak point towards a well-balanced packaging material for the food industry and its end users. Nonetheless, a process that can integrate all the produced container waste into a closed loop has not yet been developed. In countries where waste and recycling policies are not strong enough, the disposal of such containers is uncertain and thus can be assigned to landfills or other areas with detrimental consequences. These consequences are to be evaluated in further and deeper research.


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