In many countries, there is nobody to even pick them up, let alone recycle them.
Aseptic packaging is a wonderful invention, and Tetra Pak-type packaging has probably saved millions of lives, protecting people from bacterial contamination. In many parts of the world with a limited cold chain to keep stuff refrigerated, it has enabled the consumption of milk; in Vietnam, consumption has doubled in ten years because of it.
But there has always been a problem with Tetra Pak and other aseptic packaging: it is single use. It is also really hard to recycle and is rarely done. Tetra Pak makes a big deal about doing it, but we have complained about this for years. As TreeHugger emeritus Ruben once wrote:
...the places that say they recycle Tetra Paks are liars. What does “re” mean? It means again. Can a Tetra Pak be made into another Tetra Pak? No. Tetra Paks are seven incomprehensibly thin layers of paper, plastic and aluminum. The poor suckers who try to recycle them use giant blenders to mush the paper pulp off the plastic and metal, then they need to separate the plastic from the metal. What idiot thought this would be a better idea than washing a bottle and refilling it?
Corinne Redfern writes in the Guardian about what is happening in Vietnam, which should be a warning for people everywhere. Eight billion Tetra Paks are sold every year there and almost none are picked up, let alone recycled. "Now, as cartons pile up on beaches and in landfills up and down the country, that’s having a devastating effect on the environment."
The director of one recycling plant explains the problem.
“Between 30% and 50% of the product is aluminium and plastic, and the rest is paper,” says Quyet Tien. “But it’s not simply a matter of mashing the cardboard down or melting the plastic – we have to extract each separate layer and treat them all in different ways.” The process still isn’t cost-effective, he says, but it’s their social responsibility to do what they can to help the environment – even if it’s not enough. “We’d love to be able to recycle the cartons that people use and throw away afterwards – I’m sure many recycling plants would – but we get very little support from Tetra Pak themselves and we’re not a charity.”
Another company turns Tetra Paks into roof tiles.
“On average, we produce 5,000 tiles every month,” says Quyet Tien over at Dong Thien. Unfortunately, they’re also twice as expensive as normal roof tiles. “As a result, we have to manufacture to order, because so few construction companies are willing to pay that price and we don’t want to be left with any excess.”
Before Tetra Pak came to Vietnam, nobody drank much milk. Now, it's hugely popular, but a company spokesperson says, "We had to educate the customers about the convenience and safety of drinking milk from a portable, disposable carton." Unfortunately, they haven't educated the customers about what to do with the package when they are done. This is what happened in the USA sixty years ago, where we all had to be taught to pick up after ourselves. But in Vietnam, most garbage is managed by waste pickers, who only pick up what they can resell and nobody wants to buy the Tetra Paks. So the beaches end up covered with them.
It is a fascinating article demonstrating unintended consequences. The government provides a million kids with a free carton of sweetened milk every day (is this a good idea?) and they all end up piled around the school.
This is why we keep calling for producer responsibility or deposits on everything. Tetra Pak and the dairies are making all kinds of money, but should be responsible for their own products. Or as the head of the recycling plant says, "They can try recycling it themselves and see how difficult it is.”