You’re conscious about your carbon footprint, which is why you might have opted for a breakfast with almond milk instead of cow’s milk. But then you get to the end of the almond milk and are faced with a big question: is Tetra Pak recyclable?
Tetra Pak, the name behind these types of cartons, has been confusing consumers for years—and it may mean that your non-dairy milk alternative isn’t as sustainable as you once thought it was.
Unless you’re a food packaging buff, Tetra Pak is likely an unfamiliar company or just a name behind one of the most complicated recycling questions of our time. This article will take a look at Tetra Pak in both regards, while also answering those all-consuming questions of when and how it can be recycled.
What is Tetra Pak?
Tetra Pak is a big name in the world of food packaging. In fact, they’re the biggest. The Swedish company’s products have made their way to more than 160 countries, which has allowed them to amass a whopping $13.5 billion in annual sales.
One reason for their near ubiquitousness on our supermarket shelves is because they’ve innovatively created packaging shapes, designs, lid styles, and functions that meet the needs of most of our favorite food brands.
You’re likely most familiar with their aseptic cardboard box, which is commonly found storing things like shelf-stable milk, broth, soup, wine, water, and fruit juice. The boxes are light and they look aesthetically-pleasing, which has made them a big hit for many brands.
To remind us all, “aseptic” means to be free of harmful microorganisms, viruses, and bacteria. Sounds great, right? Well…perhaps not when you consider what goes into making these cardboard-like containers so great at keeping out these threats.
Is Tetra Pak Recyclable?
Tetra Pak is often – but not always – recyclable. It completely depends on your city or local recycling center’s program and rules. The reason is that it is made up of multiple layers of polyethylene, paperboard, and aluminum that – when combined – make the material more difficult to recycle.
When it comes to deciding whether an item is recyclable or not, many of us turn to the recycling symbols found on the package in question. That simple triangular symbol on the back of the bottle, can, or box normally gives us assurance that we’re doing our part to save our planet.
When it comes to Tetra Pak, however, things get a little more complicated.
The recycling symbol that we know and love can be found there on the carton, somewhere on the box or near the folds. Many of us are quick to see that, toss our OJ container into the recycling bin, and go on with our day.
Unfortunately for our local recycling centers (and our planet), the materials that make the cartons aseptic make recycling much easier said than done.
Most of the shelf-stable aseptic cartons are composed of several different layers of polyethylene, paperboard, and aluminum. If these materials were on their own, say as a cardboard box or aluminum can, recycling wouldn’t be much of an issue as we’ve got the machines and sorters to work through these different materials.
When it comes to Tetra Paks, however, the combination of the different materials makes recycling much more complex. The paper fibers need to be washed out before the aluminum and polyethylene can be separately recycled.
This requires a tremendous amount of special equipment and inputs like water and energy, and for most of us in the United States, carton recycling isn’t even possible (it’s only available to 73 million U.S. households).
When it is possible, the cartons can be recycled in just one U.S.-based facility or they have to travel thousands of miles (by fossil fuel-requiring truck, no less) to a Mexican facility to process them.
Only then can the paper be recycled into writing paper, tissues, or green building materials. The combination of the other materials, now called “polyaluminum,” can only be downcycled into single-use items like pens or car floor mats, which are now just one stage away from ending up in landfills.
Tetra Pak’s Environmental Impact
Tetra Pak may have a lower carbon footprint than other types of packaging, but it’s clear that their end-of-use recycling is problematic. What could be considered even more problematic, however, is the fact that sometimes they don’t get recycled at all.
In 2018, the company’s global recycling rate was just 26%. This means that in places like Vietnam, where the resources required to properly recycle Tetra Paks are limited, the cartons end up generating a tremendous amount of pollution.
Billions of Tetra Pak cartons are sold every year in Vietnam, but without the proper way of disposing them, they end up becoming a huge environmental calamity. It’s not uncommon for beach-side residents to fill up several bags of cartons every single day.
Even then, until a recycling program is established, there’s nowhere for these to go and in some cases, they have to be burned—which releases toxic fumes and causes yet another serious environmental concern.
Responsible Tetra Pak Use
When it comes to Tetra Pak cartons, we obviously can’t judge a book by its cover. It may appear to be a mostly paper based product that should be just as easy to recycle as a cardboard box and while it’s true that it’s mostly composed of paper, its ability to be recyclable isn’t as easy as what comes for other materials like glass, metal, or plastic.
That being said, there are some special considerations we can make when using Tetra Pak cartons:
Pay attention to the “Recyclable Where Facilities Exist” label: If you take a peek underneath that nifty recycling symbol on your Tetra Pak container, you may see some fine print. It’s always a good idea to pay special attention to the fine print.
This website, recyclecartons.com, can help you figure out if your Tetra Pak can be recycled or not in your area. However, as it’s operated by a trade group that represents packaging companies, their advice (like to compost your Tetra Pak in some areas, which certainly wouldn’t work) should be taken with a grain of salt.
Push the straw back in the pack: For Tetra Pak containers that have either a straw or a screw cap, pushing the straw through or re-attaching the cap allows all of the materials to go through the proper disposal process and prevent them from getting lost.
Avoid flattening the boxes: Unless you’re sending cartons back to Tetra Pak to be recycled, there’s no need to flatten them.
Reuse the cartons: The durable and waterproof nature of Tetra Pak cartons makes them great to reuse as planters, bird feeders, boxes for organizing, or craft materials.
This should serve as a good reminder to all of us that recycling isn’t the end-all-be-all environmental solution. It’s great to recycle, but the other “R’s” (reduce and reuse) should definitely come first.
The best thing that we can do when it comes to Tetra Pak containers is to avoid using them entirely. They make our lives much more convenient, but many of the products that come in them—like juice, nut milk, soup—are items that can be easily (and sustainably) made at home or purchased in a different type of container, like glass or aluminum.
We’d love to know your thoughts on Tetra Pak containers. Do you use them or have you already ditched them on your zero waste journey? Please share any tips, insights and nut milk recipes in the comments below!