Recycling abroad vs incineration in the UK

Filed in Blog by on February 4, 2011 25 Comments
FavoriteLoadingAdd article to favourites
Should we incinerate or recycle Tetra Pak cartons?

Should we incinerate or recycle Tetra Pak cartons?

Some decisions about a zero waste lifestyle are simple – do you choose the loose veg from the farm shop or the pre packaged vegetables from the supermarket? It’s a no-brainer, right?

Other questions such as is it better to ship products abroad for recycling or should we incinerate in the UK, are more challenging to answer.

One of our facebook readers asked about Tetra Pak cartons, incineration and recycling. She emailed her district council to ask why they didn’t provide recycling points for Tetra Paks.


The answer from her council was:

“We do not collect Tetra packs [sic] as these are bulked in the UK and then shipped all the way to Sweden to recycle the foil part. [We take] an ethical stand on this and [do] not view this as a sustainable way to deal with this material. Instead by placing them in the refuse bin they go to one of the three energy from waste plants and are incinerated with the rest of the refuse, to generate electricity.”

This left her wanting more information and she asked if I, or anyone else, could comment on whether incineration was better than shipping abroad for recycling.

Recycling abroad

While I could see their point about not shipping to Sweden, I personally favour recycling abroad because parts of the packaging are reused and recycled. Once something is incinerated it’s gone and cannot be reused. Aluminium is a very valuable material and recycling it saves about 90% of making new.

However I decided to put the question to Nick Price, Recycling officer at Tetra Pak and here is his response:

“The Smith Anderson mill in Fife used to be able to recycle all cartons collected in the UK, but it had to close in 2006 due largely to the effects of significantly increased energy costs on their main paper recycling business.

Since the closure of Smith Anderson, we have guaranteed that the collection and recycling of all post-consumer beverage cartons has continued. This is the most important thing in helping residents across the UK to recycle as much of their packaging as possible.

Since the closure we have undertaken trials with a number of UK mills and are also using mills in neighbouring European countries (Sweden) to recycle our cartons and minimise the distance the material is transported.

We are keen to find a UK based processing solution for carton recycling. However, current Life Cycle Analysis data shows that it is favourable for us to ship baled carton to Sweden for recycling rather than recycle the material in the UK using fossil fuel as an energy source.

Therefore, we have to have the right process; one that can make the best use of the excellent quality of fibre found in cartons, and uses as much green energy as possible. We continue to work on a UK processing solution that fits the bill.

It is not unusual for recyclates collected in the UK to be reprocessed in other countries – these are globally-traded materials – but we’re committed to working with other partners in the paper industry to re-establish carton recycling in this country. Until we find a new permanent solution, we have taken responsibility to ensure all excess material is recycled at the nearest available mills within neighbouring countries in Europe. Finally, it’s worth remembering that, after the bring banks are emptied, the cartons are bulked-up at regional ‘hubs’ until there is sufficient material to allow a transport-efficient trip to the paper mill.

Incineration is certainly one alternative which some local authorities may use as their chosen way of taking cartons out of the waste stream. The work we’re doing is to ensure that – for those local authorities who don’t want to incinerate – there are adequate carton recycling facilities in place.

I’d love to hear your views – what do you think is the more sustainable option – recycle abroad or incinerate here?

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 (25)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Karen says:

    Thank you for posting my question :o) I look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts. I am currently still taking them over the border into Surrey for Recycling.

  2. John Costigane says:

    Zero Waste and Incineration are opposites. Incineration merely reduces waste volumes by 3/4. Tetra Pak allow enthusiasts to return the whole package, giving a Zero Waste outcome which no other type of package, save unpackaged, can match as yet. The whole idea of promoting Tetra Pak, and other companies with Zero Waste attitudes, is to foster change in the rest. This has been quite successful for the trend though there is still plenty to do. Transporting recyclates is now part of the global economy and this has value.

  3. David Chapman says:

    As Nick Price rightly said, it is all dependant on the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). The main issue with LCA’s at the moment is the lack of international standards on where the boarders are set in the system to be analysed. For example, Nick rightly brought the UK’s mainly coal based electricity supply into his analysis. However, one could take a step further and include the carbon reduction that would be associated with the electricity that would be created thought the incineration of the product in question. This could then be taken a step further, looking at the energy efficiency of the plant, or where the recycled aluminium ends up after treatment in Sweden, or what happens to the other components of the packaging apart from the Aluminium etc. As you can see this system boundaries could be never ending.

    A skilled practitioner of LCA’s could quite legally and logically come up with nearly any desired answer utilising the current LCA packages. For example, are any of your readers keen on using the environmentally friendly hemp bags from the various supermarket chains? I know I used to, but when you factor into the LCA that the bags are mostly fabricated in China (forgetting their lower environmental standards), the transport alone is enough to place single use plastic bags as the most environmentally friendly option.

    Although I know nothing of the specifics of this situation, I would always lean towards localisation as a key method of reducing green house gas emissions.

  4. Antonio Pachowko says:

    The answer is so complex as there is no right or wrong answer as it is dependent on the individual or business involved. What may be right in one set of circumstance is wrong under another set of circumstance but experience tells me to NEVER discount anything until a detailed investigation has been carried out. Also you cannot base the decision on tetra paks alone but based on all materials as well. The decision would be based on cost benefit analysis (CBA) and environmental impact to solve the Incineration verus recycling aboard question. I personally would ask if a CBA has been done and is it possible the council could save money by transporting materials abroad.

    Incineration is neither good or bad or a final solution to waste disposal problem. Every technology has its uses and in certain circumstance Incineration will be appropriate. Engineers are becoming
    environmentally SUAVE and most plant are being designed to take its environmental impact as a primary concern at the design stage. In This way environmental operations (ENVOP) studies are carried out so that plant modification can be carried out at the design stage to meet increasingly stringent targets. Plants are often designed to meet future emission targets- For example a plant may have a dioxin emission level of 100ppm but they will probably design it to meet a 50ppm level target. Remember the science and engineering expertise is constantly improving and eventually this will show in modern Incinerators. The same could be said for transport where eventually fuel cells may become the norm and then carbon emissions will not be a problem.

    Zero waste is a misnomer as it is impossible to product something without produce waste of some kind. Remember we are bound by the conservation of mass principle (mass cannot be created or destroyed but converted from one form to another) and the laws of thermodynamics. These are very limiting and dictates the technologies we can use and to what degree. Remember the waste we produce (unless it is reused or recyled) would eventually end in the land, in water or in the air.

  5. John Costigane says:

    @Antonio Pachowko: Zero Waste means many different things. For enthusiasts, unpackaged purchases are Zero Waste since there is no plastic packaging waste resulting. For vegetables and fruit, peelings can be composted (returned to earth). For other food items, the waste can be bokashi’d before composting. Show me any waste there!

    For packages, recycling can give consumers a Zero Waste outcome, assuming councils, waste management companies and manufacturers do the right thing.

    Opposition to Zero Waste is usually vested-interest sourced as Zero Waste is a negative to such activity.

  6. Alyson says:

    I shall carry on avoiding tetra packs because they cannot be recycled here.I’d much rather it was recycled than burned.

  7. Julie Day says:

    I think it depends on how far the items are shipped, and if there are other items that are already planned to be shipped at the same time. If it’s very far then I think incineration is better (my council does this) but if it’s not too far then maybe abroad is best. Also, how is it being sent abroad, depends on the carbon footprint. By plane, bad, by ship or train then less carbon footprint.

  8. Nick Palmer says:

    True recycling is recovering the materials in a product and using them to make the same or similar products. The point is to try to reduce the global demand for raw materials and energy, not necessarily to reduce waste – although that can be a happy side effect.

    As incineration devalues or destroys those materials, it must be regarded as inferior to true recycling. I do not think that what Tetra Pak do is close enough to true recycling to win any prizes. The existence of packaging systems like Tetra Pak’s makes the return of genuine returnable re-usable systems less likely as the public greenwashed by thinking that carton recycling means the environmental problems of disposable systems are all solved.

  9. LJayne says:

    I prefer tetra pak to recycle the cartons to having them incinerated. I hope they soon find a UK replacement for Fife. Their comments says they ship baled carton.

    Would be nice to avoid them altogether, ours are mainly juice cartons but I have 3 children and I can’t afford bottled juice on top of the other less waste/healthier/greener/more holistic choices we make
    (yes I appreciate that having less children could have been an option!)

  10. John Costigane says:

    @Nick Palmer: Nick, Being critical of Tetra Pak is far too idealistic, since they do provide Zero Waste outcomes for consumers. Their packaging designs are constantly updated and I am sure if you could provide a better model for them, they would at least be interested. Admittedly, their business is no truly Zero Waste since their used packages are not used for the initial purpose, but are largely re-purposed, with some waste in-company. This is still superior to rival companies and therefore of value.

    Our consumer led campaign may seem small beer, but we have already seen much change in the 3 years since starting. Just look at the 80 refuse bag controversy, for us it is a non-issue since 80 such bags would hold 240 years waste.

    Further developments in Zero Waste will emerge but this depends on actions not words. What practical ideas do you have to add to the current advances?

  11. Jane says:

    Before the election I remember the Conservatives as being pro-efw ie incineration. They don’t seem to be saying an awful lot now that the amount of waste being produced has reduced due to the recession, better recycling facilities and people choosing to recycle.

  12. Nick Palmer says:

    @John Costigane: Being critical of Tetra Pak is far too idealistic,

    Nonsense. Initiatives such as Tetra Pak’s are not only a waste of time but, more seriously, they act to defuse momentum for real change by convincing the naive that enough is being done. The only reason for recycling, waste reduction, energy efficiency, renewables etc is because the way we have done things for the last couple of hundred years is not sustainable. There is no point in jumping three foot over a twenty foot wide crevasse.

    You shouldn’t allow the concept of working towards zero waste deflect you from the real sustainability goal which is to reduce extraction/use rates to those the planet can supply indefinitely. That probably means that huge creators of disposable packaging products will have to fade away no matter how much “three foot jump” green paint they put on their operations.

    Not that I’m criticising any of you, who are doing a fantastic job, just saying that ultimately the solutions are more wide ranging and fundamental than just “reducing” waste.

  13. John Costigane says:


    The difference in outlook may be characterised as evolution versus revolution. We started our trend as a negative commentary on “unthinking activity”. This ran for a while but resulted in a polarised debate between irreconcilable viewpoints. What has emerged more recently is a dialogue where businesses and ourselves benefit from the improvements. We get our Zero Waste options and they get our backing. This has undermined the previous certainties and will eventually lead to the ultimate goal.

    Your approach seems to be at the perfectly understandable stage of negative commentary, with no mention of further development. Maybe there is a lesson from our recent history to form your next phase? Have you any specific ideas on your next step?

  14. Mrs Green says:

    @Karen: Hi Karen, you’re welcome! Thanks for providing such a great question.

    @John Costigane: Thanks for sharing your thoughts John – I thought of you as I was writing this post! I know you are a convert to Tetra Pak, so your comments are particularly valid.

    @David Chapman: Thanks for your detailed thoughts David. I think the biggest issue for consumers is that we are not privvy to the ‘whole chain’ facts and figures, so it’s virtually impossible to make an informed decision. Without transparency (and of course, the consumers interest and time to wade through information) things are unlikely to change much.

    @Antonio Pachowko: Thanks Antonio, it’s always interesting to hear your view because you come from a very balanced and scientific background. Like you say, there is no one answer; it all depends on circumstance.

    @Alyson: me too, Alyson – I’m pro recycling than incineration 😉

    @Julie Day: Good point about how far the recyclates have to travel and how they are shipped there Julie – yet another variable to add to the mix…

    @Nick Palmer: Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nick. I think we all need to be conscious of areas where more can be done. I guess this is a challenge in life for everyone – from an individual to a huge corporation – it’s good to continually assess ourselves by asking ‘what more could I do?”
    What do you think of the new milk bottles where the plastic can be separated easily from the board?

    @LJayne: We use them for juice too. Lesley. I’m not adverse to them, I favour glass bottles but then there is the weight of shipment to consider It’s not an easy choice is it?!

  15. Ben says:

    Recycling vs incineration is an interesting question. Generally I’m against mixed waste incineration as it still leaves significant volumes of solid waste for landfill, as well as creating a lot of CO2 and possibly environmentally hazardous by products like dioxins. We also lose the materials entirely.

    However, personal opinions aside, it’s a matter of maths really. How much solid waste is produced from either option? Also, how much CO2 is produced from recycling or incineration, taking in to account fossil fuels avoided if it’s an energy from waste plant and any energy savings gained from making the new products with recycled paper? If your council can present a reasonable argument to support that incineration results in less solid waste and less CO2 then they might have a case. Have they presented any details of their reasoning?

    Still, I would like to see no more mixed household waste incinerators being built and plans to get rid of the remainder. It’s so hard to account for what goes in and far too much chlorinated plastic, synthetic materials like old paint, heavy metals from batteries and printed circuit boards and more gets in to them and results in persistent pollutants being produced. I only support energy from waste where the waste material is reliably generated and the contents can be reasonably well accounted for, such as sawmill waste from furniture factories and poultry droppings from farms, but the contents of household bins aren’t a good source. Nobody would propose using domestic rubbish on account of it burning cleanly and with little residual ashes/solids, it has only become popular for incineration due to the increasing pressure on landfill costs and space. We’re burning this stuff for all the wrong reasons, and we do have alternative for it, so I do protest to my local council for supporting it.

  16. John Costigane says:

    @Mrs Green: Thanks for the consideration, Mrs Green. Before realising the benefit of Tetra Pak usage, the situation was that glass bottled milk was the best option. This was not available locally which left the plastic bottled alternative as the only choice. This latter also had the addition of aluminium/plastic seal and plastic label, both landfill bound and recurring waste items. Following your good advice, and the fact that they had been added to the local recycling list, I decided to try Tetra Paks. The first thing I noticed was the better cap design (no seal waste) and the lack of a stuck-on label. The fact that the used pak can be recycled as a whole (Zero Waste for the consumer) shows its better design.

    The new card design, with inner plastic bag, seems a positive development. Finding the detail of its design is essential to check for other additions to the 2 named components. Labels and seals may yet prove to be negatives for this package.

  17. Tracey says:

    My big problem with incineration continues to be mixed waste. If you don’t know what’s going in, you will get a toxicity problem that you can’t fully understand and therefore can’t fully deal with. I also think that burning potential recyclables is crazy if there is an alternative, and the fly ash produced is nasty stuff that needs to be treated with a care that isn’t always apparent in plants I know of.

    I used to send tetrapaks to the Fyfe plant before it closed, but it seems fair enough to send stuff in containers to Sweden, just taking up space on a container ship that would be going anyway. As long as the stuff is then being processed using hydro-power, it sounds as if the system isn’t likely to be producing vast amounts of CO2 compared to using fossil fuel here.

  18. Nick Palmer says:

    @Mrs Green “What do you think of the new milk bottles where the plastic can be separated easily from the board?”

    I’m not sure any plastic should be in direct contact with food unless it has no hormone mimicking plasticiser additives I know that all the current fuss is about BPA but most plastics have additives to control their physical characteristics.

    @John C I don’t think focus group management-speak thinking like describing things as positive or negative is helpful. What is is figuring out what will work and what won’t.

    If you’re solely focussed on targeting reducing waste then you might be able to jump three foot over a three foot hole. If you’re not focussed on the whole target, which is how to bring about a sustainable civilisation, then your initiatives might carry us happily three foot over the twenty foot crevasse we need to cross but the diversion of time and effort promoting one- trip disposable packaging will ensure we all end up at the bottom

    You characterise this as being evolution versus revolution. Well, systems like Tetra pak’s will become extinct and “evolutionary” increments to their systems will only delay the time when they pass away.

  19. John Costigane says:

    @Nick Palmer: Hi Nick, What I like about the trend is that the idea has spread to business and government. Just a look at my current employer M&S. They are aiming for Zero Waste in-house by 2012 which shows the advances already made.

    You seem to discount Tetra Pak’s achievements but they are still developing their product range and will move closer to our point of view, with a Zero Waste initiative of their own.

    You still have not offered ideas beyond the theoretical ideal to back up your argument. Negativity has its place but is not the whole story. A practical example, which fits your criteria, would help your case, Have you thought about better alternatives, or packaging materials?

  20. Nick Palmer says:

    @John Costigane:

    Yes, the trend is spreading. I follow corporate social responsibility initiatives closely on the site. I also discuss issues frequently with the CSR manager for a major bank. These initiatives might seem to be snowballing but there is a limit to the size that that snowball can get.

    You wrote: You still have not offered ideas beyond the theoretical ideal to back up your argument

    I don’t know if I can say it any clearer. The full “ideal” is what we have to achieve and not achieving the “ideal” means that we will inevitably fail. The “ideal ” is not theoretical – it is essential.

    As far as an example goes, it’s not simply a matter of finding a new packaging material for the products which use such as Tetra paks. The very concept of products in disposable packaging manufactured by giant corporations and shipped/driven thousands of miles is the problem. Returnable/reusable systems are required. It would be impractical for most products to be shipped long distances in re-usable packaging so long distance transport will have to be phased out – automatically, big corporations that need disposable systems to make their business models work will be phased out too

  21. John Costigane says:

    @Nick Palmer: Returnable/reusable systems are already available using glass bottles, though there are few options. We enthusiasts provide home containers for local, and specialist, retailers which are Zero Waste so long as the containers retain function. This could be expanded to supermarkets but they are quite attached to their plastic packs! How do you plan to change the mindset which sees single-use plastic packaging as essential to the business?

  22. Nick Palmer says:

    @John Costigane: Mandating that the “negative environmental externalities” be included in the price. Thus, the costs that normally don’t appear on the accountant’s bottom line make one trip systems using plastic packaging end up costing the same as or more than the environmentally friendlier alternatives. Manufacturers whose systems create more waste or pollution suffer increased cost and become less profitable.

    Those who invest in better systems become more profitable. Works like magic. A price was put on sulphur dioxide emissions in 80’s America because Congress didn’t simply mandate pollution reductions. Instead, it set an overall cap and then allowed the power companies to make deals among themselves to reduce emissions. The result is a market of “pollution credits” that are traded on Wall Street, a program that created so many efficiencies that it cost about one-10th as much as expected. All by “putting a price” on an undesirable “negative externality”.

    Of course this method of rewarding full, as opposed to partial, environmental responsibility by making the cleanest and greenest producers more profitable can be applied to any environmental undesirable (or social cost too) because the majority “consumer”, if they remain being called that, will always choose the cheaper option. No legislation needed, no coercion, no guilt trips, no campaigns necessary.

    Here’s a link to an article that explains the concept a bit more.

    click for link

    A basic example of the idea is the carbon tax which is set to reflect the negative externalities such as pollution, climate change, sea level rise and the forthcoming scarcity of affordable oil (peak oil). This is probably the first such economic leveller tax that will be instituted.

  23. John Costigane says:

    @Nick Palmer: The political approach is another way to deal with the waste issue. We enthusiasts have seen the major political parties call for a Zero Waste future, though it would many years ahead. The gradual, apolitical aspect of the trend means all can join-in on their own terms. Other approaches can be of value, including a business oriented view where Zero Waste is the starting point for companies. Supporting such businesses is part of our interest. Mrs Green highlights such companies throughout the year giving them a broader exposure which can only help the businesses.

  24. Sam Perkins says:

    If carbon taxes truly worked then no-one would drive a car, they cannot be the only answer to the waste problem. And surely, some waste has to be generated? Otherwise; how can there be any new growth?!

  25. Mrs Green says:

    @Sam Perkins: Hi Sam, welcome to the site and thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m not sure we need to generate waste for new growth – how about growth in the recycling businesses / repair / reuse for example?

Leave a Reply