Recycling officer, Jenny Walden, from Tetra Pak answers your recycling questions

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Jenny Walden, tetrapak recycling officer

Jenny Walden, Tetra Pak recycling officer

Hi, I’m Jenny Walden, National Recycling Officer for Tetra Pak UK and Ireland. After the interesting discussion surrounding the carton recycling situation in Cornwall last month, Mrs Green has kindly asked me to come and debunk some of the myths about carton recycling.

So I’ve gathered together some of the most frequent misconceptions we come across, the questions you asked through the zero waste site and twitter and the questions people always ask me when I tell them what my job is!

Recycling cartons

“Why are some council areas able to recycle cartons while others can’t?  And, what are Tetra Pak doing to make it easier for all areas of the country to recycle cartons?”

To answer this, let me explain how we got to where we are today. Back in 2007 only 20% of UK Local Authority areas had access to carton recycling facilities. Tetra Pak and our industry body, ACE UK worked together investing money into the carton recycling infrastructure and setting up a scheme offering Local Authorities a cost-neutral carton collection service.

By March 2008, 86% of UK Local Authorities had carton recycling facilities, even including far flung corners like the Orkney Islands and Guernsey! We are still working with the remaining Local Authorities to try to set up carton recycling facilities in their areas. However, there will be some areas that never take up the scheme for their own reasons. Several Authorities prefer to recover energy from their waste, for example. The great thing is that paper-based cartons are now recognised as a widely recyclable material across the country.

We are also working hard to increase the number of Authorities moving from bring bank collections across to kerbside collections. The number of areas covered by kerbside collections for cartons has already gone up by 3% this year and there are now more than 60 areas. New areas start collecting kerbside cartons all the time. To find out if your council is taking cartons at the kerbside, check out our ‘where can I recycle‘ map.

Postal recycling

“If I don’t have local bring banks or a kerbside collection for cartons, can I still recycle my cartons?”

Yes, we operate a postal recycling scheme. There are downloadable address labels and instructions on how to use the service in this pdf.

Wash and squash

“Do I have to wash or squash my cartons?”

If you squash your cartons before recycling them, at least 3 times more cartons fit into your recycling containers and the collection vehicles. This means fewer collections are needed, so we are putting fewer vehicles on the road and producing fewer emissions. So really, we would like everyone to squash all their cartons before they recycle them!

You don’t have to wash your cartons, but it can help prevent smells if you are storing them for a while, and it obviously makes it nicer for people who have to deal with them throughout the recycling process. If you wash your cartons, we always recommend you use the water at the end of your washing up, so you don’t have to waste fresh water.

Recycling plastic straws

“Do I have to take the straws or caps off my cartons?”

No, you don’t have to take either the straws or the caps off your carton before recycling them; they are taken out during the recycling process.

Wax coatings in cartons

“Don’t cartons have a wax coating making them hard to recycle?”

No, there is no wax in cartons. They are made up of a multi layer system of over 70% paperboard to give the pack strength, polyethylene to liquid proof the package and for our ambient or long life packages, and a very, very, thin aluminium layer to keep out the oxygen. This means that long life cartons can protect the product for up to a year without the need for preservatives or refrigeration. If you have a quick look at our ‘How cartons are recycled‘ video, you’ll see that the recycling process is not complicated at all.

Schools recycling

“Can schools recycle their cartons?”

We have been building on the infrastructure we use for the Local Authority collections, to enable businesses and schools to recycle cartons.  To do this, we have worked closely with our contractors to develop a simple system that allows businesses and schools to link directly into their local contractor to recycle their cartons across more than 50% of UK Local Authority areas. You can find more information on this subsidised service for business and schools recycling.

Local Authority recycling

“I’ve been told by my local authority to put my cartons in with my cardboard recycling, but now someone else has told me that’s wrong. How should I recycle my cartons?”

Confusing as it sounds, many collection systems can be completely different. Always check the information for your specific Local Authority, either on their website or our tetrapak recycling site.

This is because the way the material is dealt can be completely different from one Local Authority to the next. In some cases cardboard causes problems in the system because of the way the material is handled or where the material is reprocessed. In other cases, cardboard needs to be mixed with cartons.

For our bring bank system you can’t include cardboard because cartons are a high quality paper fibre source. The cardboard used in things like cereal boxes does not contain the same high-quality fibres and mixing them reduces the value and usability of the post-recycling carton material.

Carton recycling

“When the cartons are collected from the recycling banks, what happens to them? “

After the bring banks are emptied, the cartons are baled and bulked-up at regional ‘hubs’ until there is sufficient material to allow a transport-efficient trip to the paper mill.

At the mill, the recycling process is simple. Baled cartons are dropped into a pulper, similar to a giant domestic food mixer, filled with water and pulped for around 20 minutes. This delaminates the packaging and breaks down the container to produce a grey-brown slurry. The aluminium foil and polyethylene are separated from the fibre, which is recovered to make new paper products including paper bags, envelopes, but primarily plasterboard liner.  Carton fibre is very strong and long and is, therefore, an ideal substitute for virgin pulp.

UK recycling

“I heard cartons are shipped to Sweden for recycling- is that true? Are there plans for UK based recycling plants?”

Yes, cartons collected in the UK are being recycled in paper mills in Northern Europe, particularly the Orebro Mill in Sweden.

Trading of recycled materials on global markets is common. We have chosen this specific mill as we are able to track where our material goes and there is no UK carton reprocessor at the moment. Using this mill, we know that your cartons will be recycled as Orebro is a dedicated carton mill.

We are working to establish some UK reprocessing, but this is a long term project, potentially involving new technologies and infrastructure.

Tetra Pak recycling

“Are they recycled to produce new Tetra Pak cartons or to basic components to be used in other areas?”

Cartons can be recycled into a wide range of things – like envelopes, plasterboard liner and paper bags – but we do not use them to make new cartons. Historically, this has been due to health and food hygiene considerations. Currently, there are two main reasons for this:

* there is no shortage of demand for the high quality fibre from our packages, and other users are already getting real value from it. Diverting supply away from them would undermine their businesses.

* we need to be convinced that using recycled content makes environmental sense, particularly in respect the carbon impact of package weight and overall environmental impacts. For a package that does so well in environmental studies already, we would not want to increase the weight of our pack or increase its carbon and environmental impact because of the use of recycled content. We would also need to make sure that we didn’t negate recent innovations in source reduction.

In the mean-time, until our research shows that is better to use recycled material, our focus is on maximising renewable content and on ensuring that material is sourced from forests managed to the highest environmental and social standards.

Transportation

“Does carton recycling actually make sense? After the transport etc surely it generates more C02 than it saves?”

My career has been dedicated to getting more people to recycle, and I’m passionate about improving the environment. So, given my beliefs, I wouldn’t be here doing this job if carton recycling didn’t make sense when looking at the whole life cycle of a package. If you want the technical details, life cycle analysis is the best tool to gauge the environmental impact, and across numerous studies recycling has been shown to be environmentally preferable.

I hope this is helpful. We’re always keen to answer people’s questions, so leave them in the comments, or get in touch at [email protected] For more information on any of these subjects or to contact us directly via our new blog, visit our Tetra Pak recycling website.

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About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (26)

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  1. John Costigane says:

    Jenny,

    I do not use tetrapak because of its use of aluminium combination waste. This means that a certain percentage of the packaging is either landfilled or incinerated. Both practices are unsustainable longterm
    The Chain of Waste has many components and tetrapak is just another example.

    Convenience may be one aspect of its success but sustainability is a far better aspect of package design. Can you develop suitable packaging to meet this challenge? If you can I will be the first to back your product.

  2. Hello again Jenny – great to see your photo at long last. Thanks to Mrs G for hosting a brilliant piece on what is a well-used and popular product. It would be fantastic to see the redesign as suggested by John, but in the meantime, great work on the recycling scheme. Am looking forward to doing my bit with my pledge for Recycle Week. All the best Karen 😀

  3. Mr. Green says:

    Hi Jenny, thanks for a very informative account of Tetrapak recycling. One thing you don’t mention is what happens to the other recyclate, such as polythene and aluminium. Both these materials are recycleble and useful. Does your process recover and reuse these materials?

  4. DIz says:

    Hi
    Can other aluminium backed packaging, such as Pringles tubs, be put in with your sceme, or is the constituent board of too low quality?

  5. Clare says:

    Thank you for this piece – it’s really informative.

    One thing I’d love to understand, though: my nearest carton recycling drop-off point is a superstore that is 10 miles from my home. I don’t normally shop at the superstore and feel a 20 mile round trip to recycle isn’t exactly green…

    However, the “drinks carton” recycling bin specifically says NOT to put Tetrapaks in it. These have to be taken somewhere else (no indication of where).

    Is there any reason why Tetrapaks can’t be recycled with other drinks cartons? Is the council (East Dorset) being over zealous?

    I’m confused!

    Thanks,
    Clare

  6. Mr Green says:

    @Clare: Hi Clare. At our local recycling centre, we are told to put tetrapaks in with cardboard recycling. I guess they can extract the board as pulp. Presumably the other materials get wasted however.

    Another question for Jenny: Is it ok to recycle tetrapaks with cardboard if there is no other facility available?

  7. I can take my tetrapak to my HWRC but would love to see these collected as part of my kerbside (East Linsdey) pickup as I often see cartons in peoples bins, and eithger they can’t/won’t take to HWRC or don’t even know they can be recycled there.

  8. Peter says:

    I wonder if you could amplify that final Q&A on Transport with a few more facts beyond entirely laudable dedication, belief and passion.

    I would like the technical details, and if life cycle analysis (what I equate to the ‘enviROI’ ) is the best tool to gauge the environmental impact so be it, though in this field I have found that science can be used to blind.

    Is there anything objective, substantive and, most importantly, easy for the layperson to understand that you might direct me/us to in this regard?

    I am lucky to have a carton recycling skip right nearby (though I am actually keeping all mine to see what reuse options might present first), and have pondered the heavy gauge steel container that requires a large diesel truck to get it and what is a large amount of fresh air to a place that might well compact more effectively, but then sends it all on still further.

    Frankly I am just keen to be reassured I am not just getting boxes ticked but actually contributing to a scheme that might be sending even more Co2 skywards (a priority to reduce surely?) due to the lack of local alternatives that may appear less attractive, and only exist through policy failings, but for now are on balance perhaps better on a pure GHG emission basis.

    I’d also be interested in how all this applies to the costs and processes involved in posting an empty carton in a Jiffy bag.

  9. Jenny Walden says:

    Hello Everyone,
    Thank you to you all for your detailed comments. To save you all reading through a lengthy reply, I have taken each person’s comment as a separate reply. I hope the replies don’t get too complicated, but some of you have asked some pretty detailed questions! If any of you would like more detail on any of my responses, please send me an email on [email protected].

  10. Jenny Walden says:

    Hi John,

    At Tetra Pak, we take a life-cycle approach when assessing the environmental impacts of our packaging against others. i.e. we look at the impact of the product across the whole of its life – from the sourcing of the raw materials to make the package, to the end of its life where it is disposed of.

    Cartons continually perform well across life cycle studies across the world. This is even the case if you take into account different scenarios of high recycling rates, lower recycling rates, incinerating and landfill. With this, we truly believe that we have developed a package that performs well across the whole of its life, rather than only at the end of its life.

    This is also true for long-life cartons. Whilst the thin layer of aluminum in them adds an extra material to the carton, it allows the product (i.e. the milk, juice, wine etc) to be stored for up to a year, without the need for preservatives or refrigeration. This not only saves energy (associated with refrigeration throughout the distribution chain, in store and at home), but keeps the product fresh, right up until it is needed, helping to minimise food waste.

    As you can see in my response below to Mr Green, we do not rest there however. We would like to ensure that the aluminium and plastic, (that make up only 27% of the package) are also recycled, and continue to investigate routes through which we might do this. You’ll see that we need to continue to ask people to recycle their cartons so that we might be able to viably do this one day.

    Also, under our Design for Environment program we are constantly working on improving the environmental profile of our packaging: from ensuring our cartons use the least amount of resources possible (whilst still protecting the contents) to exploring the use of alternative materials to our non renewable plastic and aluminium layers.

    So as you can see, although our cartons already perform well in LCA studies, we are continually working to improve the environmental profile of our cartons.

  11. Jenny Walden says:

    Hi Karen,

    I have to admit, I prefer to blog without my photo! I’m looking forward to seeing the outcome of all your hard work during Recycle Week.

  12. Jenny Walden says:

    Hi Mr Green,

    I briefly touched on this in the http://mzw.wpengine.com/2009/03/tetrapak-recycling-in-cornwall/ blog. The polyethylene and aluminium are currently used to power some of the mills. This does however, have a lower carbon footprint than using fossil fuels.

    Other mills separate the material for recycling into other products such as pens, roof tiles, broom handles etc. Globally, Tetra Pak have also worked with partners to develop technology that can separate the mix of plastic and aluminium into pure aluminium and paraffin.

    Here at Tetra Pak UK, we would very much like to ensure that the aluminium and plastic, (that makes up only 27% of the package) are also recycled, and continue to investigate routes through which we might do this. We need to continue to build upon our UK infrastructure in order to develop a guaranteed tonnage of carton material which would help to establish a sustainable reprocessing plant that could also potentially recycle polyethylene and aluminium. This is why we continue to ask people to recycle their cartons so that we might be able to viably do this one day.

    Also, in answer to your other question, if instructed to by your council, it is okay to recycle cartons with cardboard. This means that the reprocessing route used for their material is able to deal with the cartons as part of a mix with cardboard.

  13. Jenny Walden says:

    Hi Diz,

    There are a number of other packages that appear to have a similar sort of make up to cartons, such as Pringles tubes, Capri Sun juice bags or paper cups. However, they are actually different materials, different proportions of similar materials, or different combinations of materials.

    Unfortunately, this means that these materials are not suitable to be recycled in our system. The mill that our material goes to isn’t set up to deal with them and the wrong materials in the recycling mix can cause problems as the machines are set to deal with very specific tolerances of material. You can only put paper based liquid food and drink cartons into our bring banks. Examples of the cartons you can put in are things like your orange juice carton, your soya milk carton, your chopped tomato carton or your wine carton.

  14. Jenny Walden says:

    Hi Clare,

    We have spoken to your local Council about this one and they aren’t aware of any banks with this signage on them. There should not be any reason cartons made by Tetra Pak could not go into the scheme in this area. If you can please contact us on [email protected] and give us the specific details, we can look into this one, it’s a bit strange!

  15. Jenny Walden says:

    Hi Maisie,
    We are working extremely hard on our kerbside strategy to encourage Local Authorities to move across to collecting cartons at the kerbside. Unfortunately, this is not a quick process and can depend on the existing infrastructure and existing Local Authority contracts (which can last up to 25 years!). The numbers of authorities recycling cartons at the kerbside are increasing; currently 65 authorities take cartons at the kerbside. Hopefully East Lindsey will join the ranks in the future.

  16. Jenny Walden says:

    Hi Peter,

    I am very happy to say that a very thorough, independent, peer reviewed study has been done to show just how justified it is for you to continue to recycle your cartons in the UK, despite all these caveats you have highlighted.

    Unfortunately, we are still awaiting the publication of this Life Cycle Study by a government agency for me to point you to this. We have asked the agency for special exemption so that we might show you this particular element of the study, but until we secure their permission, I am limited as to what I can communicate beyond this.

  17. John Costigane says:

    @Jenny Walden: Thanks for the detailed reply, Jenny. 27% is a sizeable percentage of waste which results in the loss of useful aluminium, as oxides. I am glad you are looking to improve in this area. One benefit of a Zero Waste design, involving aluminium, is that you can sell the process to the many other users of combination waste.

    Increasing your recycling uptake is a big challenge with our patchwork system. Might I suggest you try a supermarket recycling link-up with vouchers against new Tetrapak purchases. Careful siting would prevent unwanted consumer interaction.

  18. Peter says:

    @Jenny Walden:

    Thank you for responding. I will await this information being made available with anticipation and interest.

    In the meantime, might you be able to point to the others you alluded to?: ‘across numerous studies recycling has been shown to be environmentally preferable.’

    Also, might I ask which government agency the latest is/will be with? Not WRAP perchance?

    This is a quango whose ever-growing board gets bonusses on meeting targets, and it is my experience ticking a tonnage box does not often meet the same enviROI criteria that I tend to feel are better to hold some initiatives to account for improving my kids’ futures.

    So I tend to crank an eyebrow at their objectivity.

  19. Jenny Walden says:

    @John Costigane:

    Hi John,

    Thank you for this. We always work to make our packs as sustainable as possible, and this is why we investigate all avenues open to us. Your suggestion will certainly be looked into as part of this process.

  20. Mrs Green says:

    This has been a fascinating discussion, and I’d like to thank every one of you for putting your questions to Jenny.

    Jenny, we are delighted with the time and energy you have given to this on our site; which we fell has gone over and beyond our expectations.

    I have spoken to Jenny two or three times over the course of putting together this article and I have been amazed at her passion, energy and enthusiasm for this topic. You might notice that her responses to all the second questions came in at just before midnight. Jenny worked in her own time to answer all our questions as fully as she could, for which Mr Green and I are extremely grateful. This really does show a dedication to the cause and Jenny’s passion for helping us make the future more environmentally sound.

    I have learned, over the years, that there is no right and wrong. All we can do as consumers is educate ourselves, ask questions and then, based on the evidence we are given, reach our own conclusion. From there, we can vote with our money whether to support a product, manufacturer or service, or not …

    In the meantime, you can all keep up with the latest on the new tetra pak blog http://www.tetrapakrecycling.co.uk/whiteboard-meetteam-blog.asp where details of the Life Cycle Study will be published as soon as they are available.

    @ Peter: Peter, many of us, who look into things beyond the surface, have suspicions regarding recycling. There has been a lot of greenwashing and we hear so many ‘bad news’ stories throughout the media about our efforts just going to ‘tick boxes’ that it is easy for us to become cynical and raise eyebrows.

    However, as Jenny says, she is awaiting this report which should hopefully, increase our knowledge and help us make more informed decisions as consumers. Her position is a difficult one, as I know she is champing at the bit to share this with us, yet she cannot do that at the moment.

    Your idea of keeping back your cartons with a view to reuse should keep you out of mischief in the meantime and I for one, look forward to all your quirky and innovative ideas – you are the King Of Reuse after all 😉

  21. Sheila says:

    Please can we have a layer by layer of Tetra Pak cartons? That way we would know exactly wherte the aluminium is.

    Thanks.

  22. Mrs Green says:

    @Sheila: Hi Sheila, I see so many types of packaging where I feel they would benefit from separate layers rather than bonded together. not sure about tetra pak cartons which hold liquid however; it’s an interesting question!

  23. Jane says:

    The bottom of the soup carton says “These are now widely recycled”. Hurray and thank you New Covent Garden for the info!

  24. Mrs Green says:

    @Jane: I’m seeing that more and more too – the message is definitely getting out there. It would be great if a link to the online recycling bank locators was included too for internet aware people and perhaps a telephone number for those not online

  25. Jane says:

    @Mrs Green: We MUST make sure that our Council Recycling Officers keep the websites with the bin locations up to date. Email them everyone if you notice that they aren’t showing the correct info or something doesn’t make sense. It will help everyone.

  26. Can you tell me if Pure-Pak cartons are recyclable?
    I put a Covent Garden soup carton in my cardboard/garden waste bin and the bin men refused to empty it, they said that I had contaminated the bin with the Tetra pack!
    I explained that it was a Pure-pak and that it stated on the bottom of the carton that is was recyclable but they weren’t interested.
    Who is correct in this instance?

    Kind Regards
    Karen Sheppard

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