Skinny Swedish Packages A Staple In China

There's always clung to the Tetra Pak a bit of uncertainty regarding its environmental credibility: is it or isn't it green? Tetra Pak recycling rates are lousy, but in at least one life cycle analysis it came out ahead of glass and PET plastic in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Now one of Tetra Pak's heirs, Swede Hans Rausch, has put a lot of money and time behind Ecolean, which might be called Tetra Pak's next generation. Ecolean is a packaging film made of 40 percent calcium carbonate (chalk) and about 60 percent polyolefin (yup, plastic).

The biggest markets for Ecolean thus far have been developing nations, especially China, where demand for dairy products is growing exponentially. But now in Europe Ecolean is getting more shelf space and is even starting to show up in grocery stores in Scandinavia.Just like with Tetra Pak, it's a little difficult to love Ecolean outright. It looks and feels, well, plasticky. But the package handle, a puffed up air capsule on its side, is kind of nifty. The company sells the machines to fill the packages and the pre-printed film, rather than the patented material itself, and thus far it's only available for cold liquids, as it can't take heat of more than 50 degrees C.

Environmentally, Ecolean's biggest advantage is its low comparative weight - the one-liter package weighs 17 grams, or 45 percent less than the paper gable-top milk cartons you see in most grocery stores (and more than 60 percent less than HDPE plastic). Ecolean also scores better than those paper or HDPE, according to a life-cycle analysis by Franklin Associates, in energy required to manufacture, as well as water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and production waste from manufacturing.

Unfortunately, on Ecolean's web site the product is never compared to Tetra Pak, which is one of the most common packaging types for dairy and other liquids in Europe. It also isn't really totally recyclable, but rather, similarly to Tetra Pack, is more likely to be downcycled. To really recycle Tetra Pak packages they need to be sent to dedicated mills in Norway and Sweden...can that be CO2 friendly? Ecolean is however, photo biodegradable (needs UV light to start degrading), and will probably become even more popular within the EU as early as next year, when the Netherlands is launching a carbon-based packaging tax. ::Ecolean

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