Tetra Pak – The Environmental Dilemma

Tetra Pak | Source: Tetra Pak on FlickrMy fiancee and I are having a green wedding. That means that we’re making conscious choices about the environmental impacts of every wedding-related decision we make, including what we provide to our guests. We decided not to provide soft drinks, but rather to provide a selection of healthier, organic juices. We went to the grocery store and found ourselves in a classic environmental dilemma, much like the ketchup bottle situation that Rick Smith found himself in when writing Slow Death by Rubber Duck. On one side, we found Santa Cruz Organic juices, a product of California and packaged in a glass bottle. On the other hand, we found Kiju Organic juices, a local Ontario product, packaged in a Tetra Pak container. Both products were the same price for roughly the same volume of juice, so there was no financial aspect to the decision. A glass bottle is more sustainable than a Tetra Pak, but a local product means it didn’t travel as far – if only there was a local product in a glass bottle! But alas, this is the classic environmental dilemma – more often than not, when trying to be environmentally responsible, you are faced not with an ideal choice, but with having to choose the lesser of two evils.

It was pretty obvious to me why a local product would be better than importing something from California. Food that doesn’t have to travel as far doesn’t require as much preservative effort and doesn’t use as many resources to get to the kitchen table. But I wasn’t so sure about the glass vs. Tetra Pak situation. I knew that both could be recylcled, and I knew that Tetra Pak claims to be the environmentally friendly package. But I was worried initially about whether or not they might be using any chemicals to line the packaging and preserve the juice. Its no secret that bisphenol A or BPA, a toxic chemical to humans, is frequently used to line cans and other food containers for preservation purposes. So before buying the juice, I decided to go home and do some research. What I found out was definitely a big surprise!

The surprise wasn’t surrounding glass. Glass can be easily recycled or reused for other purposes, and nearly all major cities have glass recycling facilities because the recycling process is fairly simple. Glass is also a neutral material that doesn’t leach anything into food. In other words, glass is good.

The big surprise, for me, was with Tetra Pak, a company that makes big claims about making “environmentally sound products” (their words, not mine). First off, let me just say that I agree that Tetra Pak’s products are miles ahead of many other products when it comes to environmental sustainability. I don’t want to discount that. Lots of companies around the world need to be more like Tetra Pak. But that doesn’t mean that Tetra Pak is without fault. In fact, Tetra Paks are great right up to the end of their life. Then they can be problematic.

What I was happy to hear is that Tetra Paks don’t use any chemical liners. They are made up of several very small material layers, totalling in the end about 75% paper, 20% plastic and 5% aluminum foil. And because the total amount of packaging is small and the shape is generally quite boxy, they can be shipped around the world very easily. You could think of them as the Ikea of the food packaging industry. But that small amount of layered material is also what makes it very difficult to recycle. Unlike a glass bottle, which is one uniform material, only the paper in Tetra Paks can be recycled. In order to recycle it, it has to be separated from the plastic and aluminum foil, which is not trivial. Once it is separated, this plastic and aluminum foil typically winds up in the landfill anyways. The bottom line is that Tetra Paks aren’t actually completely recyclable.

You might be thinking, well that’s not that bad. At least 75% of it is recyclable! And I would agree with that. The problem is that because the recycling process is so much more convoluted than most, many cities don’t have the facilities to recycle Tetra Paks. So even though your city’s recycling centre might accept Tetra Paks, they might actually be shipping them somewhere else to be recycled. Take Toronto for example. What I found out is that all Tetra Paks collected by the Toronto Recycling Department used to get shipped all the way to Michigan for recycling. That was until the Michigan recycling facility closed down – now, according to a 2008 Toronto Star article, the Tetra Paks are shipped to China and Korea for recycling! To make matters worse, only about 15% of Tetra Pak containers in Ontario are actually recycled by consumers in the first place. According to an article by Ecoholic author Adria Vasil, the city of Toronto’s recycling manager has called Tetra Paks “wasteful”. Tree Hugger, a major environmental website, wrote a scathing review of Tetra Paks in 2009. That doesn’t sound much like the eco-friendly product Tetra Pak is promoting. Suddenly, importing glass-bottled juice from California doesn’t look so bad.

And that’s exactly what we’ve decided to do. In the battle of the lesser of the two evils, my vote goes to the imported glass-bottle juice from California that can be recycled right here where I live, rather than the local juice in Tetra Paks that will be shipped half way around the world for recycling. And so it goes…unless you have a facility to recycle Tetra Paks in your own community, glass more than likely will still remain the more eco-friendly choice.

Readers, do you recycle Tetra Paks? If so, do you know whether your community actually has a facility to do the recycling, or whether they are just being shipped out? Please share if you know, and if you don’t, I encourage you to do some research and find out!

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5 thoughts on “Tetra Pak – The Environmental Dilemma

  1. If you have a facility to recycle Tetra Paks near you, then they are an excellent option, and I would even argue that they might be better than glass. I think it would make a very interesting case study to see which option would use up the most resources in its lifecycle. Glass bottles can also be reused much more easily, which is even better than recycling them. One thing I forgot to mention in the article, that also helped sway our decision to the glass bottled juice, is that it tasted better!

  2. I’ve also been thinking about buying goods that I can then compost for the garden or feed to worms. The hardest thing for me is getting out of the plastic bag habit.

  3. I, too, have issues with the tetrapaks. But I would look it at further. How local is the juice you are drinking? If we do not produce the fruit here then the juice ifs not local. The only fruit for juice we produce in Canada is apple and the bulk of the apple juice we drink comes from China (“Canadian choice” does not mean Canadian produced).

    This is not to ‘dis the Chinese. We have to question the Canadian produced products as well. Much of our produce is picked by migrant workers from Jamaica and Latin American who are not often treated well.

    So in the end the issue goes beyond recycling.

  4. Wow! Questioning a local recycling center in the province of Québec, I was told they shipped bundles of compressed container in Ontario as there was not treatment plant in the province. I bet China is the next best place to dump bundles of crushed TetraPack containers.

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