Tetra Pak – The Sequel

Tetra Pak Logo | Source: Tetra Pak on Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0 LicenceAbout two months ago, I wrote an article about an environmental dilemma in which I found myself – to buy local, organic juice packaged in Tetra Pak containers or imported, organic juice packaged in glass containers. In the end, I chose the glass-contained juice because I believed that the end-of-life management options, which included recycling the product locally, outweighed the environmental cost of importing the juice from across the country. The Tetra Paks, I found out, were being shipped halfway around the world to China and Korea for recycling. About a week or two after posting that article, I got an email from the Carton Council of Canada, defending Tetra Paks. I feel that its important to share the contents of the email, so everyone can benefit, and though I didn’t have time to earlier, today I’d like to respond to it because they did bring some interesting issues to light.

Dear “Earth and Money”:

I am writing to you today on behalf of Carton Council of Canada (CCC) in response to your blog post: “Tetra Pak – The Environmental Dilemma”.  We applaud and respect your efforts to live more sustainably and make wise choices, for your wedding and for every day. Your post identified specific research from 2008 and 2009 and we thought you might appreciate current information on the CCC’s work to address the recyclability of cartons and to optimize their end of life management. The Carton Council of Canada’s aim is to continue to work with communities to improve the capture rate at the curb, provide technical and communications assistance to recycling facility operators and support and invest in new mills in North America so that we increase the number of cartons that are recycled.

First of all, I have to give credit to the Carton Council of Canada for finding my article and emailing me in the first place. This is clearly the work of an active advocacy group, promoting a product that is in most ways, far and above better than typical packaging.

Today, in Ontario, over 90% of the population (including Toronto and all of the other large urban communities) has access to residential beverage carton recycling.  For these communities our goal is to educate consumers and encourage them to recycle. One way we do this is through recyclecartons.ca.

To my knowledge, this is true – the vast majority of the population in Western culture has access to recycling. The trick, as they have well identified, is actually getting people to recycle. Just because something is recyclable, doesn’t mean it will actually be recycled.

For communities that do not currently have a solution in place for recycling cartons, we are working individually and with Stewardship Ontario, to overcome the barriers and find appropriate mills in North America that will purchase and handle cartons collected by all Ontario programs.

As Toronto has proven, even where the community does accept cartons in the recycling, there are not necessary mills in North America to facilitate the recycling. Somehow, I feel like the issue is not finding a mill, but building a mill. If such a mill already existed, then they would be cashing in on the opportunity that exists to recycle all the cartons collected in Ontario.

You were correct in identifying that cartons in Canada, and in particular Toronto, have been shipped to China and Korea. Cartons are a valuable resource commodity in Europe and the Pacific Rim and there continues to be a strong demand for recovered cartons.  However, we have been making great progress in North America and over the past three years we have seen the number of mills taking cartons for recycling increase from 1 to 10; and the City of Toronto is beginning to sell their bales or recycled cartons to these more local mills. More mills are expected to come on-stream to recycle cartons in the coming years.

Why isn’t there a strong demand for recycled cartons in North America? Have other nations figured out a way to productively reuse cartons that we haven’t? If I understand correctly, the above paragraph indicates that there are now 10 mills recycling cartons for all of North America. That seems like a business opportunity if I’ve ever seen one. Surely it must be favourable for North American municipalities to sell their recycled cartons to local over foreign mills. I’d have loved it if the CCC provided me with the location of the nearest mill. Local is a term that can be used very loosely. As it is, I have to take their word on it that Toronto is actually selling cartons within North America.

Paper mills view cartons as a valuable source of fibre which can be used in several applications including tissue, towelling product, de-inked pulp and green building products such as wallboard. Additionally, some end-users can also use the poly/aluminum either as feedstock or fuel. On average, “gable top” cartons are made up of 80% fiber and 20% polyethylene. “Aseptic” cartons (such as juice boxes) are 74% fiber, 22% polyethylene and 4% aluminum.  To show you how it works, see a demonstration of carton recycling on You Tube.To further increase the overall recyclability of cartons, Tetra Pak and their business partners have invested significant seed capital in a new recycling process at Groupe RCM in Yamachiche, PQ, that turns entire cartons (including the polyethylene, aluminum as well as caps and straws), plastic bags and films in to new and useful products such as flower pots and construction materials. Groupe RCM, in Quebec expects to begin production by the end of 2012.

Some great information on what cartons are used for after recycling and processing. And finally, the key piece of information in the email for me. This is the kind of corporate responsibility that I was after – Tetra Pak themselves are funding the construction of a local recycling facility. Its important to think of production processes from a “whole-system design” or “closed-loop” perspective. The burden should not be on others to dispose of or recycle a company’s product. I hope that Tetra Pak continues to fund the construction of other such mills in North America.

We hope that this information helps you to make decisions about purchasing cartons and alleviates your concerns about their end-of-life management.
Sincerely,
Carton Council of Canada

To be honest, even if I could go back, I still would have bought the glass-contained juice. But the main reason would have been because it was better juice, and not a function of the end-of-life management. I will concede that the Carton Council of Canada has made some headway into alleviating some of my concerns regarding Tetra Pak recycling in Canada. That said, I still think there is a long way to go.

The biggest thing that all of this has opened my eyes too is the functioning of the recycling system in general. Many of us recycle our products and feel good about doing so. But how many people simply assume that everything they recycle is being processed right in their own city. I know I did for the most part. It never occurred to me that recycled materials would be shipped cross-province, cross-country or across the globe for processing. Its important to ask questions and think critically about our actions. Recycling is great – but it would be even better to reuse the products or reduce consumption. Glass holds another advantage – its much easier to clean and reuse a glass container than a Tetra Pak. Reusing a product is recycling it without having to send it anywhere, and that will win out every time. Of the three R’s, recycling is the last resort but still a better solution than the landfill.

Readers, when you recycle a product, do you know where it’s going? Does your city have local recycling plants, or have you even ever stopped to think about it?

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8 thoughts on “Tetra Pak – The Sequel

  1. Our city has just upped the anty with recycling programs. There has been a huge push back to be better and there have been numerous initiatives kicked off to get more recycled and for people to generate less waste. I am very happy things are moving in this direction.

    • Thanks for your comment Miss T! Getting people to recycle really is the hardest first step. Once it becomes habit, then it will always continue. The younger generation that is raised in an environment that recycles will then find it odd to be in any situation where recycling is not available.

  2. That was really neat that they emailed you, especially as the email was well written, informative and didn’t come across as “please love us, please.”

    I’m really glad that you shared that, as it was very interesting to me!

  3. The economics of shipping materials for recycling can make sense, but the economics would probably look even better if they could be recycled locally and the environmental benefits of not shipping the materials would be huge.

  4. Wow! This is a startling thing…they’ve sure got a grip on what anyone is saying about their product. This kind of packaging is a manifestation of a multi-multi-multi-billion-dollar industry, as I learned when I posted one of my rants about overpackaging. It is so in their interest to keep us buying products in cartons, blister-packs, and consumer-proof combinations of cardboard and plastic. And to quiet us when we bellyache about it.

    Another nice thing about a glass bottle: you can use it as a casual flower vase. 😉

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