MRW talks to global packaging giant Tetra Pak about its recycling concerns.
How much packaging does Tetra Pak put on the market in a year, and how much of this goes on to be recycled?
Globally, 188 billion Tetra Pak packages were sold in 2017. Today in the UK, beverage cartons are collected for recycling by more than 90% of local authority areas. In 2018 more than 67% of councils collected from households in kerbside recycling collections and 25% of areas are served by bring bank collections
Cartons collected for recycling in 35% of all local authority areas are sent to a dedicated carton recycling plant in the UK, opened near Halifax in 2013 and run by Sonoco Alcore.
The local authorities that do not recycle beverage cartons in the UK plant export to the global recycling market. The export of packaging to the global market is commonplace for all packaging, not just cartons.
But the UK carton recycling plant gives councils the environmentally advantageous option of being able to recycle cartons domestically. It is therefore Tetra Pak’s aim for all local authorities to collect cartons in household collections for recycling.
What is your approach to extended producer responsibility (EPR)?
Tetra Pak’s goal is to enable our packages to be transformed into resources as part of a circular economy. Establishing and improving recycling schemes is essential to this transformation.
“We serve as a matchmaker between collectors and recyclers, and help to expand market opportunities for recycled materials.”
We have been working for decades with governments, business partners and NGOs around the world to improve recycling for our packaging. Tetra Pak has been a committed partner in developing and implementing most of the EPR schemes for packaging waste today.
We strongly believe that EPR plays an important role in boosting recycling rates. We have established recycling solutions for beverage cartons, serving as a matchmaker between collectors and recyclers, and helping to expand market opportunities for recycled materials. We also help to promote separate collections of recyclables and contribute to consumer awareness campaigns on the importance of recycling.
Tetra Pak’s main involvement in UK recycling infrastructure is through ACE UK and the dedicated carton recycling facility. How does it work with ACE, and in what other ways?
Through our membership of ACE, we have been instrumental in getting recycling in the UK off the ground. In October 2017, organisations from across the paper supply chain signed an agreement with ACE UK to establish paper cup recycling alongside carton packages at bring banks (which cover 25% of the UK). ACE UK will also work to include cups in kerbside collections.
The greater volumes of recycling material generated by this initiative will improve the beverage carton recycling stream, strengthen the business case for carton recycling and contribute to a sustainable recycling value chain in the UK. This initiative complements Tetra Pak’s existing activities while raising awareness of our work.
Bio-based and biodegradable packaging sounds good to the general public but often causes more problems than it solves. What are your thoughts on this ongoing debate?
In our beverage cartons that use bio-based plastics, the plastic has been made from ethanol produced from sugar cane. Currently we use bio-based plastics in our caps, closures, film and neck of packages. In fact, we were the first in the industry in 2011 to launch caps made from bio-based polymers.
Derived from sugar cane ethanol, currently sourced in Brazil, the molecules are the same, and they function exactly the same as fossil fuel-based plastic caps but have a significantly lower carbon footprint. Importantly, recyclability is not affected at all because the bio-based materials are processed together with conventional polymers without restrictions
None of the plastics used in our packages are biodegradable, for food protection and recycling reasons. Our plastic must withstand light, oxygen and water for long periods of time to preserve the filled product. If the degradation process starts before consumption, the filled product will be spoiled and go to waste. Biodegradable plastics also have a negative impact on the plastics recycling stream.
Waste management in developing countries can be a huge problem. What should packaging producers’ role be internationally in helping to prevent the scale of dumping we see?
Recycling works when all the necessary factors are in place and well connected. A weak or missing local link – such as a lack of efficient collection systems, separate collection of packaging or waste management infrastructure – is a challenge for the whole process.
Waste management varies market by market as each country has different waste composition and sorting mechanisms, different legislation and operates different waste and recycling infrastructures
As a major packaging producer, we support initiatives to drive major improvements in waste management and recycling infrastructure worldwide, while simultaneously raising consumer awareness on the importance of recycling and the impact of littering.
We are currently driving local recycling initiatives in more than 70 countries. We are engaging and contributing with waste management companies, governments and other key stakeholders to shape effective collection schemes. For example, in China we develop best practices of sustainable used beverage carton collection models based on data from collection pilots and submit to government as policy reference. We had three of these projects ongoing in three major cities in 2017.
Since 2012, we have made investments in recycling infrastructure of €17m (£15m).
Gavin Landeg is head of environment north-west Europe for Tetra Pak