The problem with milk cartons

In the debate about packaging, one type of pack can escape scrutiny, those “paper-based” rectangular cartons, usually associated with their main producer, Tetra Pak. These aseptic carton containers for ambient milk and other products, just like plastic packs, must resist water and stop ingredients such as flavours from migrating out, and contaminants such as oxygen that can spoil the food from migrating in. The packaging has complex constructions that include a thin barrier layer of aluminium with layers of plastic to inhibit compromising the pack in wet environments.

However, revealed in an article in Wikipedia on Tetra Pak, these complex barriers prevent packs from being recycled in municipal recycling facilities. Does this mean that a “paper” product is worse than a “plastic” one? It is noteworthy that PET (polyethylene terephthalate) drink bottles can readily be recycled back to virgin PET if a good system is in place to collect and return the bottles.

An article in The Guardian tells of how people collecting waste on the beaches of Vietnam take away plastic, paper and even dead bodies, but no one wants to take away Tetra Pak cartons. As discussed in WikiTribune, in countries worldwide as well as Vietnam, the problem of garbage on beaches and in the sea is not so much the specific type of waste, but that there is little systematic waste collection, and waste entering rivers then flows into the sea, creating oceanic garbage patches.

The solution to oceanic garbage patches is about more than plastics. It is about waste disposal systems.

Are Tetra Pak cartons intrinsically bad because they “cannot be recycled in municipal recycling facilities?” It depends on the facility. In Switzerland, most waste that is not efficiently recycled receives thermal recycling where incineration yields combined heat and power, generating 1–2 GW.  Milk cartons are no different from any other packaging waste and can at least create some useful energy. In countries without thermal recycling Tetra Paks go into landfill that may cause other environmental hazards.

In the UK people can take their Tetra Paks to special bins, as they do their glass bottles, and the packs are processed at special facilities to extract the high quality fibres which are then used in other products.

In Vietnam, the lack of general garbage disposal is the overwhelming concern, with Tetra Pak as a minor portion to that problem. What should Vietnam’s priorities be? Focus on milk carton recycling, on plastic recycling, or banning Tetra Pak and replacing it with another option, or focus on general garbage collection?

Tetra Pak cartons are efficient, safe and effective. Replacements such as glass or multi-layer plastic packaging are problematic, having their own recycling concerns, and are an inefficient use of resources.

Implementing good national and global garbage collection systems would seem to be a root-cause solution to our complex, multiple garbage disposal problems. Adaptations such as radical sorting and full recycling, or the Swiss two-tier solution of recycling high-value materials such as PET and thermally reutilising mixed waste such as Tetra Paks offer two options. Continuing to define and improve the best processes and collection systems is a difficult but do-able task. If we can make it to the moon and beyond, we can figure out how to take out the garbage.


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