Shelf stable milk and juice is a genius idea — buy in bulk to always have at the ready, less food waste, and it is fresher than canned goods. But with all the benefits of shelf stable packaging like Tetra Pak, they’re difficult to recycle due to their multi-layer construction. Curbside pickup often won’t take them and even some of the best recycling centers, like mine in Park City, can’t take them. In April though, the Carton Council and the 4 leading carton manufacturers banded together to improve the carton recycling infrastructure in the US. Europe has been recycling Tetra Pak for years, so it’s high time that we got on the bandwagon as well.
Tetra Pak cartons are the most common name for aseptic cartons, which are used for liquid food items so they can be stored for up to one year without refrigeration. Aseptic means “free from pathogenic micro-organisms,” so this packaging process eliminates harmful elements from the food and packages them in a pre-sterilized container. This type of packaging also blocks light completely, in order to preserve vitamins A, B2, B6, B12, C and K, which are all photosensitive and would become damaged in the presence of light. Tetra Paks are are constructed from a 6 layers of materials.
1. Polyethylene – protects against outside moisture
2. Paper – for stability and strength
3. Polyethylene – adhesion layer
4. Aluminum foil – oxygen, flavor and light barrier
5. Polyethylene – adhesion layer
6. Polyethylene – seals in the liquid
The biggest layer is the paper layer, which makes up 75% of the packaging, otherwise 20% is polyethylene and 5% is aluminum. The paper part is what can be recycled relatively easily and is used to create other items like paper and tissue products.
Although Tetra Pak says it has been recycling in the US since 1999, not many people have benefited from that program – only certain communities in 26 states. The goal of the new collaboration between Tetra Pak, Elopak, Evergreen Packaging, SIG Combibloc and the Carton Council, is to increase access to carton recycling to 60 million people in the US.
They’ve also teamed up with Waste Management to help with the recycling process, which is simple in theory. The recycling mill puts the cartons in a large vat of water where the cartons are agitated. As the cartons rub against each other, the fibers are rubbed apart and dissolve into the water. The end result is paper pulp which can then be reused for tissue or other paper products like cereal boxes. Unfortunately the other layers are sieved off and most likely thrown away.
Not all communities or even states have recyclers in their area to take Tetra Pak cartons, but hopefully they will soon. To check if your community can recycle aseptic cartons, go towww.recyclecartons.com and pick your state. If your community or city is on the list within your state, you can put the cartons in with your recyclables and they will take care of it. If your community is not listed and want it to be, contact Waste Management and Tetra Pakand request that your city be added. If all else fails, make sure to remove the plastic top and throw it in with your plastic recycling as it is the same kind of plastic as bottle caps. You can also recycle them yourself into various other useful products like reflectors, or maybe even tiles. With more communities and cities joining all the time, hopefully most of the US will be able to take advantage of aseptic carton recycling soon.