Meet Tetra Pak, the most maddening piece of packaging in your kitchen
Yeah, you probably can put that carton in the recycling. But here’s why you shouldn’t.
BY CHRIS TAYLOR
In Mashable’s series Wasted, we dig into the myriad ways we’re trashing our planet. Because it’s time to sober up.
My adventures in the deep, dark underworld of Tetra Pak cartons began with a simple question: Which recycling bin do I put this thing in?
Like many of us, I once lived my life blissfully unaware of the fact that I am surrounded at all times by that strange hybrid species of packaging known as the Tetra Pak. The privately-held international conglomerate that makes them, also called Tetra Pak, is the biggest packaging company you’ve never heard of. In fact, it’s the biggest packaging company in the world, period, with nearly $13 billion in annual sales.
There are two kinds of Tetra Pak. There’s the “aseptic,” a rectangular box with folds on the top that you might think of as a soup carton, also commonly used for nut milks. You usually put them in the cupboard. And there’s the “gable top,” the one that looks like a regular milk carton. You usually put them in the fridge.
Both may or may not have plastic spouts and lids. Both may or may not be made by Tetra Pak; you often have to dig under those folds to find out, which is also where you may or may not find a recycling symbol.
These ambiguities are just the beginning of how crazy-making it feels when you dig deeper into planet Tetra Pak.
Tetra Paks are light, which is a big part of the appeal for food distributors. They look and feel like cardboard, albeit a waxy kind of cardboard. You might easily turn one over, see the recycling symbol, and toss it into your paper recycling bin without a second thought. Boom. Job done.
Pausing only to feel a little smug about doing your duty to the planet, you move on to a thousand other kitchen tasks — unaware that the package you threw away also contains at least two layers of polyethylene, and if it’s aseptic, a layer of aluminum.
That’s great for the contents, which stay fresher longer, but it opens up a whole can of worms for a consumer who wants to reduce their carbon footprint.
My wife, always the more environmentally aware member of the household, was the first to alert me to the composition of the item I was merrily tossing into the recycling. “But it has the symbol on it,” I argued, infuriated that here was yet one more part of modern living we couldn’t take for granted any more.
Indeed, many Tetra Paks have the recycling symbol (at least, in the case of most gable tops, the aseptics not so much.) But it also comes with a whole bunch of fine print.
Check with your local recycling program? Sure thing! I talked to folks at Recology, which handles most of the recycling for San Francisco, probably one of the most enlightened recycling programs in America (it diverts more than 80 percent of waste away from landfills). None would talk on the record, the official mandate from on high being that San Francisco does recycle Tetra Paks (as do U.S. communities containing more than 70 million households, according to Tetra Pak).
Team Recology was at pains to point out that not all recycling is equally good for the planet. Aluminum cans and glass bottles are great; easy to reuse, handled locally, they can be back on store shelves within a week. Tetra Pak cartons, however, are shipped in giant bales to a facility in Mexico. Two giant 18-wheel trucks stuffed full of them make the 2,000-mile journey every few months, just from San Francisco alone.
And that’s just the first part of a carbon-intensive process of separating those plastic, paper, and aluminum layers. Some of it ends up as cement, which is in itself the third highest cause of carbon emissions in the world. Check out this highly exciting video of the process, then tell me it isn’t a thousand times less wasteful of our planet’s limited resources to just wash out a bottle or can.
A load of compost
Even finding out if you’re in a zip code that can participate in this process is fraught. Google “carton” and “recycling” and you will almost certainly be led to the website of the Carton Council, a trade group that represents Tetra Pak and other carton companies in all matters of recycling.
But when I entered the zip code for my home in Berkeley, the Carton Council advised that I put my cartons not in the recycling, but in the compost bin.
“Please don’t put Tetra Paks in the compost, that’s crazy,” said Kathryn Kellogg, a Berkeley-based recycling blogger and author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste. “Some parchment paper is lined with wax, which is biodegradable, and some with plastic, which isn’t, and it’s really hard for the average human to tell the difference. I don’t know why they’d even recommend that.”
It seemed the Carton Council had misread what it says on Berkeley’s Department of Public Works website. You’re allowed to put milk cartons “with any plastic parts removed” in the compost, which in this case would mean somehow stripping the polyethylene inside and out. (Good luck with that!) And Berkeley makes clear that aseptic cartons are never allowed in the compost. But the Carton Council simply smooths over the difference.
Crazy pills ahoy!
I spoke with Scott Byrne, who as luck would have it is both the Carton Council’s Director of Government Affairs and Tetra Pak’s “circular economy expert” for the U.S. and Canada. While deftly avoiding an apology for its readout, he called the website “a work in progress” that is “constantly being updated.” He said that Tetra Pak is “always looking to reduce the environmental footprint of their packages.”
Indeed, the company introduced a carton called Tetra Rex Bio in 2014, using fully recycled paper — as opposed to 40 percent recycled in its regular cartons — and plastics derived from sugar cane. Tetra Pak claims to have delivered half a billion of them, but I’ve never seen one in the wild in the U.S. California-based Trader Joe’s, one of America’s most environmentally conscious groceries, recently pledged to cut down on plastic use nationwide in response to a Greenpeace petition. And yet they continue to sell large amounts of regular non-biodegradable Tetra Paks like it ain’t no thing. (Trader Joe’s did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)
So why wouldn’t Tetra Pak and the Carton Council push Tetra Rex Bio — a product that you can actually put in the compost? Why not withdraw the old kinds of carton? I told Byrne this was no mere academic question. The climate crisis was barreling down on us. We were speaking in the middle of a fire season caused by California getting hotter and drier. Fears of wildfires and lack of investment in infrastructure had led to my power being cut off twice, one time the day before we spoke. Surely the carbon-intensive status quo was less than ideal?
In response, Byrne led me on an exhausting dance. He said climate change was real, but that was just a “personal belief.” Sending our Tetra Paks to be torn apart in a vast facility in Mexico was helpful to that country’s economy. The Carton Council’s recycling programs were innovative because they were helping waste facilities buy more robots. He said the regular Tetra Paks were “very efficient from a carbon standpoint, compared to a lot of options.”
There may be a grain of truth to that, at least in terms of what happens to packages before they get to grocery stores. Tetra Paks are lighter, so they take less energy to ship. Contents last longer so there’s less food waste, which is in itself a major driver of climate change. Tetra Pak offered a 2014 report it had commissioned from independent experts showing the overall energy involved in producing an aseptic package of soup was less than that of soup in a steel can.
But the study seemed cherry-picked: Most cans are aluminum, not steel. It also had a suspiciously high “end of life” estimate for the energy involved in recycling the can and almost nothing for the Tetra Pak, which is clearly absurd. Kellogg, who has absorbed more than a few of these kinds of studies, has a word for all of this smoke-and-mirrors stuff: greenwashing.
“If it sounds really vague and unspecific, if the claim feels too good to be true, if they’re saying a whole bunch of nothing, it’s greenwashing,” she says. “We’re not designing these products for end of life, we’re just designing these products and saying ‘cool! Let’s figure out a way to reuse them!’”
Which seems to be the case here. Tetra Pak recycling is like dropping an anvil from a 60-story tower block to hit a nail. It’s a thing, and thanks to the efforts of a vast industry trade group, more of us have access to it. But is it the right thing to do? If you don’t want to swallow a whole bottle of crazy pills trying to figure out whether it’s worth it, best that you just buy less complicated and more locally recycled packaging — like tins and bottles — in the first place.
This story originally published on mashable.com.