Non-Recyclable Item of the Month: TetraPak

You’ve seen ‘em, you use ‘em, everyone does. These are the rectangular cartons that hold soups and soup stock. They are also commonly used for different types of milk, juice boxes, and even wine. They are found all over the supermarket, actually.

Great for shipping, great for keeping food fresh, these cartons are made of a laminate of plastic, paper and aluminum foil—a matrix that is extremely difficult to separate for recycling.

According to the company that makes them (the huge Swiss company Tetra Laval) they are recyclable. But just a little research, and you will find that while they are recyclable in a few specialized factories, only “18% of 22 billion sold per year are recycled” and only “…20% of America has access to recycling facilities for TetraPaks, the rest go in the landfill,” according to Prof. Lloyd Alter of Ryerson University.

And that goes for us in San Juan County. When ORS Executive Director Pete Moe asked the managers of Orcas Island’s recycling facility in Woodinville, WA about the recyclability of TetraPaks they said: “We actually don’t have an efficient method of collecting these cartons.  Many of them are flattened during the collection process and they end up in our mixed paper.  The ones that do make it to the container line are mixed in with our #3-7 plastics.”

That means ALL TetraPaks are at least a partial contaminant. That is, preferred specs for mixed paper bales clearly call out plastic as a contaminant. Likewise, preferred specs for mixed plastic bales clearly call out paper as a contaminant.

Ironically, our Materials Recover Facility still accepts these cartons, so you can put them in your recycling. However it appears that they are rarely recycled—they are just part of the “acceptable contamination” that ends up in bales of recycled material.

TetraPaks are among the many packaging products that truly beg the question: “Should these packages be allowed?” For a larger conversation on this check out our article about Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR.