In Defense of TetraPak

3 tetra pak containers of water

Amy Sussman / Getty Images 

TetraPak, the company that makes aseptic milk carton-like packaging that holds everything from wine to soup to tomato sauce, has been receiving a lot of coverage in the green media lately, both good and bad. This surge in attention is in part due to a recent TetraPak-sponsored media event in Sweden,to which I had the fortune to get invited. Before I continue I should state that what I am about to write is based entirely on my professional opinion as a sustainability engineer and was not influenced by pickled herring or Swedish meatballs.

TetraPak Is One Of Many Packaging Options

TetraPak represents one of many packaging solutions, all of which have their environmental benefits and drawbacks. Beverages can be packaged in single-use glass bottles, plastic bottles and aluminum cans or, in Europe at least, reusable containers. The environmental drawback of all of these is that they use a great deal of energy to manufacture (especially when you look at the lifecycle impacts of resource extraction) and to recycle, and their weight adds to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation of the final product.

The Problem Of Recycling

One big argument against TetraPak is around recycling. TetraPak cartons are fully recyclable, which unfortunately does not mean much in locations where carton recycling facilities do not exist. But in the increasing number of places where the technology is available the plastic and aluminum are separated and recycled indefinitely while the high-quality paper fibers are turned into products that previously may have been made from virgin pulp, such as corrugated cardboard boxes.

Where Do TetraPaks Come From?

TetraPak cartons are made from pine trees that come increasingly from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified forests or forests that meet TetraPak's minimum criteria (no old-growth, no illegal sources, etc.). These pine trees are used for their exceptional fibers, which are long and strong, giving TetraPak cartons the rigidity needed to maintain their shape.

Why Not Recycle TetraPaks Into New TetraPaks?

While TetraPak could use recycled pulp, even pulp from recycled TetraPak cartons, the fibers in this pulp would not be as strong. TetraPak realized that in order to maintain the required properties, the recycled paperboard would have to be quite a bit thicker. So the decision was made to minimize the product's weight and let other industries with less critical material requirements use the recycled pulp.The argument that a product is only recyclable if it can be turned into a new version of itself is a false one. TetraPak cartons can be recycled into many pulp-products that would have otherwise been made with virgin pulp. Due to the characteristics of wood fibers no paper product is infinitely recyclable like aluminum, but unlike aluminum, glass, and plastic it is a fully renewable resource that will biodegrade into soil.But as TreeHugger's Lloyd Alter points out, only 18% of TetraPak cartons are recycled worldwide, a number which is steadily climbing due to TetraPak's efforts but is still quite low. Using aseptic cartons to package foods and beverages clearly has its environmental benefits, even if you just look at reduced shipping weight, but can they be deemed bad simply because their recycling rates are low? In a previous article on milk cartons, I show how cartons create less greenhouse gas emissions in manufacturing and transportation than a glass alternative.

Who Is Actually Responsible?

This raises the question about whose responsibility it is to recycle a material. Does the responsibility lie with the carton manufacturer, the company that uses the carton to package their product, the retailer that sells the product, the consumer that brings it home, or the waste management company charged with taking it away?Rather than vilifying the carton manufacturer for downstream failures I believe that the responsibility lies with everyone along the value chain. The waste management company has a responsibility to both its shareholders and its community, primarily driven by the supply and demand of commodity markets, to find most efficient end-of-life scenario for materials. The consumer has the responsibility to divert waste to the recycling stream. The retailer has the responsibility to source products packaged in locally recyclable materials. The food manufacturer has the responsibility to choose the most appropriate packaging to protect their product to ensure safety and longevity. And finally, the packaging manufacturer has the responsibility to source sustainably-harvested renewable materials, use the most efficient manufacturing processes, and to support its customers, consumers, retailers and recyclers in meeting their responsibilities. I would argue that TetraPak does all of this quite well, and communicating this is a matter of good customer/public relations, and not greenwashing.