Tetra Paks are difficult to recycle because they are made out of a number of different materials.
The main material in a Tetra Pak is paperboard. This is made out of wood and helps to keep the package stable and sturdy.
This paperboard is layered with polyethylene, a type of plastic that protects the paperboard from being damaged by moisture. It also protects the packaging from the product inside. Polyethylene allows the paperboard to stick to the aluminium foil.
The foil then protects the Tetra Pak’s contents from oxygen and light. Along with the use of sterilisation, this foil helps to keep perishable food inside safe for months, without refrigeration or preservatives.
Tetra Pak caps are also made from HDPE, a type of plastic derived from sugar cane.
It was recently announced that Tetra Paks will soon be able to be recycled in New Zealand, namely at a facility in South Auckland. RNZ reports that Tetra Pak is purchasing additional machinery to aid this process. However, due to the difficulty of separating the many layers of a Tetra Pak carton, this machinery is simply going to shred the Tetra Paks and combine all the different materials together.
This shredded material is not going to be made into new Tetra Paks. Instead, it will be used to create a substitute for timber. Tetra Pak has partnered with New Zealand Plastics Products, a wood plastic manufacturer, for this purpose. Used Tetra Paks will be turned into a wood plastic composite.
Recycling and downcycling
Sadly, this means that Tetra Pak is not truly recycling. Instead, what Tetra Pak is doing is using up resources only to downcycle their packaging. Downcycling occurs when items are recycled down into different objects, and not recycled back into the products that they originally were. Tetra Paks are not going to be recycled into new Tetra Paks. Because of this, there will still be demand to create brand new Tetra Paks and demand to create new single-use waste. Tetra Pak's method of downcycling also mulches up harmful plastic with other much more valuable and natural materials, such as wood and aluminium.
For this reason, Tetra Pak is not truly closing the recycling loop. On their website, Tetra Pak claims that creating a “circular economy” that reduces waste is “close to Tetra Pak’s heart”. However, from their downcycling initiative, it is evident that their actions do not reflect their words. If Tetra Pak were truly creating a circular economy, Tetra Paks could be created into new Tetra Paks in an endless loop. This is not the case. Tetra Pak’s own recycling diagram has an end-point; the circle does not continue.
In 2018, more than 189 billion Tetra Pak packages were sold worldwide, and ‘recycling’ seems to be Tetra Pak’s way of justifying their creation of this single-use waste. We should not treat Tetra Pak’s new initiative in New Zealand, which is downcycling disguised as recycling, like a victory. Doing so will simply allow large companies such as Tetra Pak to keep creating this new waste and to keep exploiting our earth.
Since Tetra Paks are so difficult to truly recycle, the solution to dealing with all this single-use waste is to stop Tetra Pak from creating this waste in the first place. Manufacturers should not be allowed to make money off the destruction of the environment and our future. A better means of reducing our negative impact on the environment is to refuse this kind of wasteful and harmful packaging. and to encourage reusable alternatives instead.
RNZ. “Tetra Pak plans to convert cartons to decking timber”. Accessed June 7, 2019. https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/391338/tetra-pak-plans-to-convert-cartons-to-decking-timber
Tetra Pak. “Aseptic solutions”. Accessed June 7, 2019. https://www.tetrapak.com/packaging/aseptic-solutions
Tetra Pak. “Circular Economy”. Accessed June 7, 2019. https://www.tetrapak.com/sustainability/circular-economy
Tetra Pak. “Openings and closures for Tetra Pak carton packages”. Accessed June 7, 2019. https://www.tetrapak.com/packaging/openings
Tetra Pak. “Packaging material for Tetra Pak carton packages”. Accessed June 7, 2019. https://www.tetrapak.com/packaging/materials
Tetra Pak. “Polymers”. Accessed June 7, 2019. https://www.tetrapak.com/sustainability/responsible-sourcing/polymers
Tetra Pak. “Post-consumer recycling”. Accessed June 7, 2019. https://www.tetrapak.com/sustainability/recycling
Tetra Pak. “Sustainability report 2019”. Accessed June 7, 2019. https://assets.tetrapak.com/static/documents/sustainability/sustainability-report2019.pdf
Tetra Pak. “Sustainable packages”. Accessed June 7, 2019. https://www.tetrapak.com/sustainability/customer-focus/sustainable-packages
Tetra Pak. “Tetra Pak in figures”. Accessed June 7, 2019. https://www.tetrapak.com/about/facts-figures