Stockholm (NordSIP) – The sight of water being distributed in cartons at the PRI in Person event in Barcelona set alarm bells ringing at NordSIP’s Laundromat HQ. On closer inspection, the cartons state that the “packaging and cap are plant-based.” Nevertheless, they are still earmarked for disposal in Barcelona’s yellow recycling bins rather than the blue ones destined for cardboard and paper or the brown ones for organic waste. The yellow bin is for a mix of more problematic materials that need to be sorted through optical, mechanical and manual procedures before being transported to specialist recycling centres. These water packs may be slightly better than other similar ones, but the fact they are not easily recycled would indicate they are still part of the broader problem that this type of packaging represents.
The recycling equation is a complex one. Aluminium cans are infinitely recyclable, and the process uses only 5% of the energy needed to produce the metal from scratch. Glass is also infinitely recyclable. Proponents of food and drink cartons will argue that they provide weight savings and space efficiency that would be reflected in lower transportation emissions, as well as a cheap and practical solution to food waste. However, the recycling issues illustrated in this case by Barcelona’s colourful bins have drawn the sustainability spotlight onto this type of laminated fibre packaging.
Recyclable in theory but not in practice
Although they look like cardboard, and many consumers dispose of them as such, the need for these cartons to be aseptic means they are in fact made from a sandwich of various layers of polyethylene, aluminium and paper. This is where the greenwashing starts, with the key word being “recyclable.” The truth is that there are very few facilities that can recover the separate materials from these laminated fibres. The cartons are indeed recyclable, but this is largely theoretical. In the UK, most local authorities simply incinerate these cartons or send them to landfill. Recycling depends on separate, voluntary drop-off schemes where the waste is sent to the solitary facility in the UK that can deal with it. In the USA, cities like San Francisco send large bales of this type of waste by truck down to Mexico for processing. Recycling laminated fibreboard is time consuming, labour intensive, costly and carbon inefficient.
Companies must publish actual recycling rates, not good intentions.
Companies like Tetra Pak dedicate large sections of their marketing materials, reports and website to sustainability. They state that their approach to recycling and circularity involves “ensuring that our cartons are designed to be effectively recycled at scale in state-of-the-art industrial infrastructure” and “convincing local authorities […] to mandate the collection for recycling of cartons with all other packaging for liquid food.” Tetra Pak boasts that “since 2010, we have increased the number of facilities that recycle cartons from 40 to more than 200.” However, only 42 of these can deal with polyAL (the non-paper based element of the cartons), and given that these are worldwide figures, they could be considered very low when compared to the scale of laminated fibreboard waste produced globally.
Rather than nice words, theoretical schemes and good intentions, companies like Tetra Pak or Kellogg (manufacturers of the ubiquitous Pringles tube) should be obliged to publish actual recycling rates. Laundromat estimates that the effective recycling rate for the Pringles tube in the UK is roughly 0.1% of the more than 100 million produced each year. Consumers, regulators and shareholders must get wise to this completely disingenuous use of the term “recyclable.” The planet is choking on packaging waste and it appears far too easy to continue profiting from these highly detrimental value chains.