Are Tetra Paks really as environmentally sound as we're led to believe?
The basics
From baby food to pet food, the Tetra Pak is ubiquitous throughout grocery store aisles. As one of the company’s many websites asserts, “Wherever there’s food, you’re likely to find a Tetra Pak carton.” Since 1951, consumers and corporations praise the food processing and packaging company’s money- and resource-saving design. Incorporating paper, polyethylene, and aluminum, Tetra Pak containers extend food’s shelf life without refrigeration.

A triple-bottom line business
Most recently, the Sweden-based Tetra Pak has started to address concerns over environmental impacts of the packaging. Efforts toward rebranding Tetra Pak as environmentally sustainable include increasing carton recycling rates by 10% in 2012, and designing lighter packaging that uses one-third less aluminum, and reduces carbon emissions in the production process by 23% (Green Retail Decisions, 2013).

To further reinvigorate current packaging, Tetra Pak plans to pilot 13 billion packages with sugar-cane caps in Brazil—following the footsteps of similar sustainability initiatives by Coca-Cola and Pepsi (Shankleman, BusinessGreen, 2013). In 2012, Tetra Pak also partnered with the Forest Stewardship Council (F.S.C.) to ensure the wood harvested for packages is not removed illegally or from forests where “violent disputes [are] taking place with indigenous people” (Reed, New York Times, 2013).

Asking bigger questions
Despite these initiatives, however, Tetra Pak harvested nearly 2.5 million acres of forests to produce 173 billion cartons in 2012, with only 22% of those cartons recycled (Ibid and GRD, 2013). Environmentalists have voiced skepticism over the FSC’s practices, as the organization simply certifies forests for “responsible” logging, rather than protecting them from deforestation in the first place (International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2013).

So, can Tetra Pak stand as a model for sustainable business? Currently, only 38% of Tetra Pak cartons are made from FSC “certified” wood, and though carton recycling access increased by 10% last year, production volumes increased by the same percentage (GRD, 2013). That’s billions more cartons requiring more paper, aluminum, plastic, fuel consumption, and other resources in the production process. Meanwhile, only 41% of US households have access to carton recycling programs—most of which are located in metropolitan areas (Tetra Pak Recycling Brochure, 2013) and as low recycling rates indicate, the programs aren’t used by most consumers. Clearly, questions of sustainability are more nuanced than we are led to believe, and there remains much progress to be made.

A sustainable solution
The next time you reach for a Tetra Pak, ask yourself: is there a way I can enjoy this product waste-free? Chances are, your supermarket carries it in bulk, or do it yourself! Paired with our eco-friendly reusable baby food pouch or our reusable juice box, you can be a part of the sustainable, reusable solution. Before you encourage your town to start carton recycling, or reach for another pre-packaged and processed food, check out what your reusable options are first.

Do you think Tetra Pak is making sustainable strides, or has room to improve? Leave us a comment below!

Image: Tetra Pak