10 Sad Truths About Carton Containers
We are all for a step in the right direction, but it’s time we take an honest look at carton containers like Tetra Paks®.
Tetra Paks® are any single-use beverage container like school milk cartons, for example, now, they are being adopted for things like water bottles by companies like Boxed Water and Just Water. Let’s break down the reality of this packaging and address the creation, recycling process, and eco-claims that prove to be a letdown for our environment.
Photo source: pfree.co.uk
Here’s the deal: nothing is perfect, but to know if packaging material is an effective long term solution, we have to look at how much waste is being generated in the first place and then look at the recycling rate of that waste. There are many pieces we want to look at when trying to truly understand whether we are being sold a sustainable pipe dream, or whether we’ve finally found the answer to our plastic crisis.
Why are Tetra Paks® considered a sustainable solution?
Tetra Paks® claim to be the safe alternative to our plastic crisis because the majority of the bottles are made from plant-based materials that can then be recycled into new paper-based products. The unfortunate part is that only a small amount of all Tetra Packs that are created are actually recycled. According to Tetra Pak’s® website, the recycling rate is currently 26% worldwide for all Tetra Paks. This low recycling rate is due to the fact that there are very few recycling facilities that accept tetra paks for recycling, which means the Tetra Pak’s® will be thrown away in the garbage.
Are Tetra Paks recyclable?
Technically, yes, but ONLY where facilities exist. Click the map below to see how many places in the U.S. actually accept cartons for recycling. Spoiler alert, there aren’t that many.
Are all materials in a Tetra Pak actually recycled?
Now that’s a tricky question. Tetra Paks are made up of 14% plastic sheets, 6% bioplastic cap, 75% cardboard, and 5% aluminum. After the 26% of Tetra Paks make it to a recycling facility, they are broken down into some base materials. The upside is that the tree/sugarcane/cellulose materials that make up the 75% “cardboard” is technically able to be separated from the bottle and recycled into paper products. The downside, the recycling process cannot currently turn the bottle into a new bottle.
The only material of this process that really gets recycled is the cardboard portion into new paper products while the aluminum and plastic mixture, called “polyaluminum” are now bound together and must be downcycled into single-use items that are destined for the landfill like car floor mats, plastic pens, and flooring/decks. The use of polyaluminum mixtures removes the infinite recyclable capabilities of aluminum and sinks both the aluminum and plastics down the landfill drain.
Let’s break down why single-use Tetra paks are NOT a sustainable solution to our plastic and waste crisis.
Sustainable packaging RED FLAGS. Here’s how Tetra paks stack up:
- SINGLE-USE - This is the first red flag for any product that claims to be sustainable. Sure, parts of the packaging might be from renewable resources, that’s great, but we are moving away from a single-use society because it’s simply not working. Single-use was created to sell more units and increase profits. But we’re all getting smarter, and we need better products with better packaging that is intentionally reusable - not single-use.
- LOW RECYCLING RATE - When in doubt if a product is truly sustainable, check the recycling rate. Don’t just look for a “recyclable” symbol - these numbered triangles will not tell you what’s really happening. It’s just a sorting mechanism. Look for official rates of recycling from previous years to see how that item performed. For Tetra Pak, the international recycling rate is only 26%. This is slightly better than plastics, yet it’s dismal compared to aluminum at 76%.
- “RECYCLABLE WHERE FACILITIES EXIST”- The devil is in the details with this red flag. Always read between the lines of this statement and look to see where recycling facilities exist. You can call anything recyclable, but if there are no facilities that collect it nearby, it’s trash. Tetra paks are sold in countries like Vietnam with ZERO recycling facilities that accept Tetra Paks. They either end up in the garbage or, more often on the beach. Before a product can be labeled “recyclable,” and sold anywhere, there should be laws requiring that recycling facilities actually exist and have the capacity to accept, recycle, and place those recycled materials back on the market. Until then, items that cannot be recycled in a particular area should not be allowed to be sold there.
- DOWNCYCLED - An area of recycling that causes a lot of confusion is downcycling. Most people assume that if an item is now a new product, it is a successful recycling process. This is false, learn more about why that is here. When materials like plastic get turned into new materials like polyester, carpets, and plastic park benches, there is no recycling system for these secondary materials. They end up in the landfill rather than being recycled again and again. This is called downcycling; it’s the step-child of genuine recycling. As of the latest information available, Tetra Paks never get recycled into new Tetra Paks. Instead, they are made into other items like paper products and polyaluminum products, never to be another Tetra Pak again.
- NOT RECYCLED 1:1 - One of the biggest signs of a healthy recycling system is whether the item being recycled can turn into the same item over and over again. This is called a closed-loop recycling system. If a product or product packaging cannot be broken down and made into the same items again, with little to no virgin materials added, then you’ve got a winner. For example, aluminum cans, when recycled go through a simple melting process and get turned back into cans and put back onto store shelves within 60 days, repeatedly, infinitely. Tetra paks, unfortunately, do not have a 1:1 recycling system like glass and aluminum.
- REQUIRES VIRGIN MATERIALS - Don’t just look to see if the item in your hand is recyclable, check to see that it’s actually made from recycled material. Often times, especially in the case where plastics are made, virgin materials are needed. With Tetra Pak, there is currently no recycled paper used for the creation of the packaging. Virgin plants/trees/cellulose are required for the creation of every new carton.
- USING AGRICULTURE FOR PACKAGING - While a shift from plastics and petroleum will always be a step in a better direction, relying on agriculture in the case of plants and trees for packaging should come with a warning label. Ask questions about where the plants and trees are grown, and how communities, where this is taking place, are affected by land and water appropriation. Are there sustainable efforts to replace the plants used for the derivation of your product, or is there clear cutting going on. In the case of Tetra paks, 38% of the wood they currently use is taken from Forest Stewardship Council certified forests where responsible management of trees is required. Even if 100% FSC is reached, we have to ask, do we really want to use trees to make single-use packaging? There might be better options.
- NOT BUILT FOR LONG-TERM REUSE - Sure, a few reuses are better than none. Some people are die-hard reusers, no matter what the material is, and this is a great mentality. Although some items can be used more than once, they were never made with the purpose of reuse in mind, and, there could be chemicals that leach from the packaging into the product after the first use. Single-use packaging is also likely to breakdown rapidly, and no matter how well you take care of it, it will inevitably end up in the trash or recycling bin soon after you purchased it. Some manufacturers of cartons are labeling them as reusable, and while it’s great to get as much use as possible out of any item before dumping it into the recycling bin it’s more important to source reusable packaging graded for long-term reuse, think in years not just days and weeks. Think in terms of how long you can reuse it, not just that an item says it’s “reusable.”
- NOT A CLOSED-LOOP RECYCLING SYSTEM - A big recycling red flag is when a material is not part of a closed-loop recycling system. Closed-loop recycling systems mean that you can put the material in the same system over and over again without ever needing to add virgin material to make new items. Tetra paks are not in a closed loop because they are made from various materials that cannot be brought back into the system to make new Tetra Paks. An example of an excellent closed-loop system is aluminum. About 75% of all aluminum that was ever put into production is still in use and cycling through the recycling process to this day. This means that as long as aluminum makes it to a recycling facility, 100% of it can be recovered and recycled into new products, over and over again, infinitely. And because of the high value of aluminum, this happens 76% of the time.
- COMPLICATED MATERIALS THAT CANNOT BE EASILY RECYCLED - The best recyclable packaging consists of simple materials that can easily be broken down and made into the same materials again. Unfortunately, when many materials are combined to make one package, the changes in recycling decreases with each new addition. Tetra paks have a minimum of 4 different materials to make one package. Two of these -- aluminum and plastic-- cannot be separated once mixed into the packaging. This sinks aluminum, usually a highly valued commodity, into the downcycled disaster of cheap plastic.
While there are some benefits to the Tetra Pak method for packaging, like the need for zero preservatives and better shipping configurations, the environmental damage of cartons currently outweigh the benefits. The marketing of such products has successfully positioned carton packaging as a legitimate solution to our plastic crisis. However, the reality is on the barometer heading in the direction of destruction and only moves a few notches in the right direction from 100% single-use plastic materials.
We are at a crossroads in our plastic crisis. Many bans on single-use plastic are currently being adopted; however, they are dated too far in the future. The proposition of changes to AB 1080 in California that aim to phase out single-use plastic does not resolve to do so entirely until 2030. This is an unacceptable time frame given the grave reality of our plastic crisis. We cannot settle for partial solutions like Tetra Pak cartons to solve our immense single-use plastic problem. The only real solution is to adopt a culture of reuse.
The only solution is a transition from the current single-use EVERYTHING system to a REUSE everything system. It’s not complicated, it won’t take 11 years, and we can accomplish greater measures in a shorter time with the right solutions. We must, however, be keenly aware of and able to decipher non-solutions, partial-solutions, and genuine solutions to our crisis, rather than being sold yet another green gimmick.
The truth is that reusable packaging is ideal and should always be the go-to when sourcing water. When faced with the dilemma of what bottled water to choose - REJECT SINGLE-USE and always CHOOSE REUSE. Because a #RefillNotLandfill culture is what we need to save us now.