Rethinking the carton

3rd March 2016


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Catherine Early finds out how Tetra Pak is creating packaging that saves more than it costs

The potential to create an enormous waste footprint is plain at Tetra Pak. Last year the Swedish food processing and packaging manufacturer supplied 180 billion cartons, enough to hold 80 billion litres of product, to some of the world’s biggest food and drink brands, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Danone. With output of such size, the company is aware of the need to ensure that what leaves the factory gates is recyclable and recycled.

Growing awareness

Tetra Pak sees a trend for increasing awareness of the environmental credentials of packaging from both its customers in the food and drink industry and retail consumers. Almost 80% of consumers say they ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ buy products with environmentally sound packaging, according to the company’s latest survey of more than 6,000 people and 240 retailers, manufacturers and NGOs in 12 countries.

The results of this survey convinced Tetra Pak that environmentally sound packaging is a way for it to differentiate itself in the market and the firm has been focusing on increasing the use of renewable materials for some years. In 2007, it secured Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC) for the first time, and has now expanded this to cover around a quarter of its products.

In 2011, it launched caps for cartons made from bio-based plastics, which are derived from Brazilian sugarcane and have a lower carbon footprint than conventional fossil fuel-based plastics. Tetra Pak claims that its customers can switch to these without investing in different filling machines and is rolling them out across all its advanced packaging formats. Last year, 2.7 billion Tetra Paks had these caps. The company also produces containers with pre-cut perforation, enabling consumers to detach the plastic top from the carton sleeve so the two components can be recycled separately.

Going further

However, the company’s main ambition is for all its packaging to be made from 100% renewable materials, including the polymers used to coat containers to prevent moisture entering or escaping. In 2014, it launched the Tetra Rex bio-based package, made entirely from plant-based materials. All the paperboard used in the product comes from FSC-certified and controlled sources, and is traceable to its origins, the company says. The product has achieved the highest rating under the OK Biobased scheme, run by Belgian-based certification body Vincotte.

The laminate film for the packaging and the neck of the opening is made of low-density polyethylene, produced by Brazilian chemicals company Braskem. The film is derived from sugarcane, as is the high-density polyethylene used for the cap. Tetra Pak’s vice-president of environment, Mario Abreu, explains that the sugarcane is grown in south-east Brazil on land that was degraded or that the government has set aside for the crop. Having a sole supplier rather than a complex supply chain makes it easier for Tetra Pak to keep track of its environmental performance, Abreu says. Tetra Pak is working with Braskem on achieving certification for the bioethanol it produces, under either the Bonsucro scheme or the Roundtable for Sustainable Biomaterials.

Erin Simon, deputy director of private sector engagement and a plastics scientist with WWF, has worked with Tetra Pak to help it understand the implications of moving from fossil-based plastics to bio-based plastics. This shift brings in a new set of environmental and social impacts compared with conventional plastics, she says.

‘Issues around sustainable sourcing of bio-based feedstocks need collective action, for example reducing land use change issues, reducing water use and quality issues and chemical use,’ says Simon. ‘You have to improve supply chain transparency right through to farm level and increase collaboration.’

Many companies are looking to move towards bio-based plastics. Coca-Cola launched its plant bottle in 2015 and Lego has pledged to entirely replace fossil-based plastics in its products by 2030. Companies that are part of the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, such as P&G, Danone and Unilever, are also leading on this and are sharing innovations, she adds.

Simon says: ‘The conventional plastics industry has been around for 60 years and is really efficient so sharing research and development and working closely together on bio-based plastics is really exciting. Tetra Pak has been at the forefront of that.’

But there are still many challenges to overcome in the development of bioplastics. Simon warns: ‘Just because some packaging comes from plant materials, it does not necessarily mean it is sustainable, and the right practices need to be put in place to manage all the potential impacts.

‘We need to talk about responsibly managing resources no matter what they are producing, and make sure we focus on what the true issues are for every feedstock in every region of the world because they’re going to be different every time.’

A circular approach

Of course, there is no point having highly recyclable packaging if no one is recycling it. Tetra Pak has a two-pronged approach to this, working both to increase recycling infrastructure and educate consumers. It targets action at each of the 170 countries in which it operates since they are at different stages of developing recycling infrastructure, says Mario Abreu, the firm’s vice-president of environment. ‘In some countries there is no recycling infrastructure, so there’s no point raising consumer awareness. In other countries, there’s lots of infrastructure, but no awareness,’ he says. The company aims to understand how it can enable more recycling for consumers, country by country.

Globally, about 650,000 tonnes of Tetra Pak cartons are recycled each year – 63% of UK local authorities offer collection services

Around 650,000 tonnes of Tetra Pak cartons are recycled globally, mostly into cardboard. The machinery needed to recycle a Tetra Pak is the same as that used for standard cardboard, with the different layers of the carton turned into slurry. This is then diluted to wash away the cardboard fibre from the polymers and aluminium foil. The only difference is that cartons are usually kept separate from cardboard to avoid contamination with tape or staples, for example, so that the end material is sufficiently consistent for recycling. In the UK, Tetra Pak cartons are recycled by Sonoco, which has a plant near Halifax, West Yorkshire. This opened in 2013 and is the UK’s only drinks carton recycling facility, transforming used products into industrial-strength coreboard at the site’s paper mill.

However, the Halifax facility was not the first of its kind. One in Fife, Scotland, closed in 2006 due to insufficient volumes, and the material was sent to Sweden and Italy for recycling. Since the Halifax plant opened, the number of local authorities offering kerbside collection of cartons has increased to 63%. A further 29% have collection points in their areas. The Alliance of Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK), which represents Tetra Pak and other carton manufacturers, gathers the material and sends it to the Sonoco plant.

In the US, which typically has poor recycling infrastructure, Tetra Pak has worked with the Carton Council to increase access to carton recycling. Five years ago, the proportion of households able to recycle cartons was around 20%, but this has risen to 58%. The goal is to reach 60% by the end of the year, Abreu says.

Final strand

The final strand to Tetra Pak’s recycling ambition is to find markets for the materials produced in the process. It is not currently worth the cardboard manufacturers’ effort to recycle polyethylene and aluminium, Abreu explains. However, the company is working on technologies to recover these materials for other markets. For example, it has used the polymers to make roof tiles for the developing world, which have the added benefit of reflecting sunlight, cooling the area under the tiles. The product is very popular in Brazil, Abreu says. Tetra Pak has a target to double the number of its cartons being recycled globally by 2020, which will give it bigger volumes to invest in facilities to make products from the recovered materials.

‘When we can recycle in high volumes it will be worth creating technologies that will separate polymers and foil further,’ Abreu says. ‘The foil can be recovered into flakes, to be used in industry. But to do this you need high volumes so, the more we develop recycling, the more quantities arrive, the more feasible and justifiable it is to invest in plants like this.’

Dealing with aluminium in packaging

Cartons designed to keep the contents sterile without refrigeration are also lined with a layer of aluminium to give protection from oxygen and light. These features allow perishable food to be kept safe without cold storage for months, a vital advantage in the developing world. Though this layer is eight times thinner than a human hair, Tetra Pak acknowledges that the material has the greatest single environmental impact of any part of the packaging. Mining of bauxite, from which aluminium is derived, can have many environmental impacts including on the land, chemicals, working conditions and health and safety. Aluminium can be hard to trace back to its source since it is traded on an open exchange market.

Tetra Pak’s solution is to collaborate with non-governmental organisations and other companies whose products use metal. The Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI) now has 23 members, including Rio Tinto, Alcoa, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover and Coca-Cola, and plans to develop standards covering all stages of production and transformation, including bauxite mining, alumina refining, aluminium production, material conversion and the remelting of scrap. The group has already developed a performance standard covering:

  • governance (policy, management and transparency);
  • environment (water, greenhouse-gas emissions, biodiversity, effluent and waste); and
  • social (human rights and health and safety).

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is coordinating development of the standard. The ASI held an event in Thailand in May 2015 to gather feedback from people in India, Cambodia, Australia and Suriname, as well as NGOs in other countries, such as the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact foundation (AIPP) and the Forest Peoples Programme.

The meeting led to guidance on the effective implementation and assurance of compliance, a pledge for continual engagement with indigenous groups and a complaints procedure. The ASI is now working on a chain of custody standard that companies can use as a responsible sourcing tool, and on how these will be audited and certification granted.

Mario Abreu, Tetra Pak’s vice-president of environment, explains the firm’s motivation to set up the ASI: ‘It is easy for a company to say what they want from their suppliers. But it is much more credible to form a multi-stakeholder group and say what it is we should be asking our suppliers. The goal is for it to become a benchmark for industry.’

Tetra-Rex bio-based packaging

Five beverage manufacturers (below) have so far signed up to use Tetra Pak’s renewable packaging, known as Tetra Rex. Product director Christina Chester says Tetra Pak targeted milk packaging first because it does not need a layer of aluminium (see above) inside it. The company is expecting to produce more than 100 million renewable cartons in 2016. The carbon footprint of the bio-based package is 35% lower than that of a fossil-based package, according to a lifecycle analysis carried out by Braskem in 2013.

‘We started in Europe because European customers are very switched on to the environment, but it has potential everywhere,’ she says. The common denominator of customers so far is that they all have strong sustainability agendas, Chester says. ‘Customers see it as a differentiator because not everyone has this yet.’ The sugarcane-based plastics are more expensive than those that are fossil-based, Chester admits, but adds: ‘We fully expect the price to go down in future when the product gets more efficient.’

Tetra Pak is hoping to deliver 100 million bio-based cartons in 2016, a small number compared with its 180 billion carton production. But a spokeswoman says it is only the start of the company’s renewable journey: ‘The progress in this one year has been remarkable. We will continue expanding our bio-based package portfolio and increase this percentage in the years to come.’ The drinks manufacturers that have taken the renewable packaging route are:

  • Valio – the Finnish company chose Tetra Rex bio-based packages for its lactose-free, semi-skimmed milk in a three-month trial. It gathered feedback on the packaging from consumers online and the positive response led it to roll out the packaging to its entire organic range.
  • Arla Foods – Swedish firm Arla is using the packaging for its organic milk range. The firm’s carbon reduction strategy includes using packaging that is made from renewable materials.
  • Vermlands Mejeri – a small dairy in Sweden that has started production in the past year. Its business model is that everything is sourced locally, including the packaging.
  • Vecozuviel – this Dutch milk producer also chose Tetra Pak to complement its sustainability agenda, along with using renewable materials and energy and sourcing its milk from local farms.
  • Tine – is a Norwegian milk producer that has been testing the renewable packaging for its organic range. Tine is planning to introduce it to its entire milk range in 2017.


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