When Ruben Rausing founded Tetra Pak it was about innovating. Making a product that would “save more than it costs”. That saving came from using cheaper lighter materials, using a tetrahedral shape that maximizes volume while reducing the surface and using an efficient standard sheet of material. Where is it now? Now it is almost a monopoly that hasn’t changed much from its initial value offering.
The monopoly is in liquid food packaging. Your milk container is probably designed by Tetra Pak. The company designs the package, machines to make the package, and the material it’s made of. The old saying of “saving more than it costs” is moving away from where it used to be. Today the material is hard to recycle and is often thrown away in North America. Why is it so hard to recycle?
An illustration of a milk container that has a blue circle as the background. Most milk packages are designed by Tetra Pak
The material that makes up the package is Paper (75%), Plastic (20%), and Aluminum (5%). All three of these materials are recyclable. The problem is that the packaging is in six layers, which makes them difficult to separate the materials. In 2012 there were only a 100 locations in the world that can process the package. None of these locations were in North America. In 2014 I toured recycling centers in the Greater San Fransisco area. I asked them what they do with Tetra Pak and Aseptic packaging. About half of the locations I visited did not take them. I came across a few that did. I walked into the office of one and asked them where it goes. They told me that they load the packaging onto cargo containers and ship it to China. What? We ship our waste to the other side of the world so that it can be recycled, turn into boxes then shipped back to us. This is crazy.
There is a project in Eastern Europe that is better. They want to turn the packaging into roof tiles. But this is not a complete solution. The demand for roofing material is limited and likely we would over produce the waste. What is a better solution? Packaging in the future will either be reusable or be completely biodegradable. This is what Tetra Pak needs to do with their packaging.
To make their packaging biodegradable they could replace the plastic with a natural wax that could keep a seal and biodegrade after opening. For reusability, they could increase the amount of aluminum and make the aluminum layer able to be easily separated with processing and then reused by re-applying the layer for new packaging. The strategy depends on us. How much do we recycle and what are our incentives to recycle? When we recycle more products that are reusable are better. When we throw products away, ones that are degradable are better.
To affect this Tetra Pak could also include a reward when used packaging material is returned to Tetra Pak. This would incentives us, the consumer to recycle. The new “saving more than it costs” should be applied to the environment by developing biodegradable or reusable packaging.