Are Tetra Paks recyclable

Beverage cartons and the "recycling lie": dispute over packaging escalates

The green image of the beverage carton gets scratches. Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) accuses its manufacturers of presenting their product in a more ecological way than it is. The association of packaging manufacturers now had to issue a cease and desist declaration due to false claims about recyclability. But that's not enough for the DUH.

A beverage carton like this is pretty handy. It is light, handy and resealable. No wonder that the Germans carry more than nine billion pieces of it from the supermarkets every year. When it comes to milk, in particular, they reach for the carton much more often than the bottle.

A good grip, as the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) thinks. Because a beverage carton is largely made of paper, a renewable raw material, its ecological balance is particularly good.

Recycling rate of 70 percent?

So good that the UBA classifies it as “ecologically beneficial” and the legislature exempts it from the one-way deposit requirement - which makes it even more practical. Consumers do not have to bring empty beverage cartons back into stores; they can safely dispose of them using the yellow sack.

The recycling rate should then be around 70 percent. The idea: paper mills recover cellulose fibers from the packaging and use them to manufacture new products, for example corrugated cardboard and pizza boxes. What you can't use are the other components: plastic, which seals the pack, and aluminum, which protects the drinks from light and air.

But these materials are also being used in a new way, namely in the rotary kiln of a cement plant. The plastic serves as fuel and replaces coal. The aluminum replaces the aluminum ore bauxite, which is used as an additive in cement production.

Difference between theory and practice

Nothing is wasted, it seems ... and yet doubts about the green image of the cardboard box are growing.

This is not least the fault of the manufacturers themselves, who tend to overshoot the mark when they advertise the ecological advantages of their product. They represent the box better than it is. For example, market leader Tetra Pak has advertised that its packaging is "completely recycled". A false claim against which the German Environmental Aid (DUH) successfully sued three years ago.

Since then, Tetra Pak only claims that the boxes are "100% recyclable".

In theory this may be true, but in practice it does not happen. Also because consumers are throwing a considerable part of the boxes into the residual waste. The biggest problem for recycling, however, is the composite material that makes up the packaging: foils made of the plastic polyethylene (PE), which are almost inseparably glued to the layer of aluminum.

The manufacturers' association FKN has also claimed for years that the aluminum portion is recovered in a recycling plant in Merseburg, Saxony-Anhalt, "on a large-scale, sorted by type". But it was just one more thing "Recycling lie", as the DUH now announces.

The environmental and consumer protection organization from Berlin wrested a declaration from the FKN not to make this claim in the future. A contractual penalty is to be paid for each violation of this cease and desist declaration, it says.

FKN spokesman Michael Kleene admits to WiWo Green that the recovery in Merseburg was just an attempt that never got beyond this status. "The PE-aluminum composites were still recycled," said Kleene, defending his association.

Even if the manufacturers stop the supposed greenwashing, the DUH will not give up. For environmentalists, the carton is no longer environmentally friendly beverage packaging.

As with cans and one-way bottles, they therefore demand a deposit on the box. “Ecologically beneficial” - this classification is outdated, they say.

For example, the packaging has become heavier, as the DUH found out in random samples. A box now weighs an average of 35 grams per liter, nine grams more than ten years ago. A small but subtle difference that customers don't notice when shopping.

But in large quantities on a truck, the extra weight leads to higher fuel consumption and more emissions during transport, which reduces the ecological balance of the beverage cartons.

The reason for the weight problems: There is more plastic in a beverage carton today than in the past. There are hardly any Tetra Paks left without a plastic cap. According to the DUH, on the other hand, the proportion of paper is decreasing. There is packaging in circulation that is made up of around 50 percent PE films. In these cases, there can be no question of a box or even of “packaging that grows back”, as the FKN advertises on its website.

The manufacturers reject the allegations as "adventurous numbers games".

In a statement from their lobby association, they refer to studies on the eco-balance of beverage cartons. These investigations, which were carried out on their behalf, confirmed the classification by the UBA. They refuse a deposit on beverage cartons.

Criticism that the recycling rate for cardboard boxes they propose could be set too high is countered by referring to official statistics.

Statistics are flawed

But state statisticians are also misleading, as our research on waste statistics recently showed. They count what goes into a recycling plant, not what comes out at the end. Dirt and moisture that sticks to a discarded packaging, residues of juice or milk that are still inside are weighed and counted instead of deducted.

The numbers also distort garbage such as old foils and cardboard that incorrectly ended up in the cardboard boxes. This happens with beverage cartons as with any other waste stream and leads to a distortion of the quantity information and thus to incorrect quotas.

According to calculations by the DUH, the actual recycling rate for practical beverage packaging is only around 35 percent and thus half lower than officially claimed. Most of the rest of the packaging ends up being incinerated in cement plants. "The raw materials are lost there," says Thomas Fischer, an expert on circular economy at DUH.

He would rather see the materials recycled. Or better still: when customers bought reusable bottles instead of cardboard boxes. They had the better ecological balance.

However, reusable has been withdrawing from the supermarket shelves for years due to a lack of demand. It is unlikely that a deposit on beverage cartons can reverse this trend.

Reading tip: The question of how to properly deal with waste is a dogma dispute in Germany. Innovative companies are now managing to intelligently combine recycling and incineration. Our feature shows how they turn garbage into high quality new products - and valuable fuel. You can find the text under this link:

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