February 14, 2024

As cities and countries around the world work to evolve and strengthen their recycling infrastructures, food packaging companies are taking a radical and collaborative approach to improving recycling. For us, that means designing beverage cartons for recycling – making them more attractive to recycle and making it easier to keep high-quality recovered materials in use. 

Waste management and recycling technologies are complex and vary significantly across the globe one country’s trash could be another’s treasure. Just take paper-based beverage cartons: The thin polymer and aluminium layers keep the product inside safe to consume and help extend its shelf-life. But the main challenge for some recyclers is effectively contributing to material circularity by turning quality resources into new materials and goods, reducing the use of virgin content. 

Where waste management and recycling infrastructure is in place, paper-based beverage cartons are sent to paper mills. Here, the fibres are separated from the other layers by “cooking” the packages in a big pool of lukewarm water until the fibres can be filtered away and recycled into other paper-based products like cardboard boxes, napkins or paper towels. The remaining polymer and aluminium (polyAl) can be turned into pallets, crates, pellets, panels, profiles, tiles and various building materials and design items.

To design for recycling, we need to rethink food packaging
from the ground up and consider the entire product lifecycle, including its end of life

Making carton packages more attractive to recyclers

To design for recycling, we need to rethink food packaging from the ground up and consider the entire product lifecycle, including its end of life. As part of these efforts, we jointly adopted Design for Recycling guidelines for beverage cartons together with our industry partners in the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE). The guidelines provide technical advice on how to optimise the recycling of this type of packaging. 

More recently, the 4evergreen alliance added beverage packaging design guidance to its fibre-based circularity toolset. 4evergreen is a cross-industry platform that aims to increase the use of fibre-based packaging in a circular and sustainable economy, and Tetra Pak is among the founding members. The updated Circularity by Design Guideline covers fibre-based composite packaging types (including beverage cartons) and helps designers understand how compatible these are with different recycling processes.

One way to make beverage cartons more attractive to recyclers is to increase the share of paperboard – a step that also moves us towards our long-term goal of simplifying the packaging material structure. Today, a one-litre Tetra Pak carton package is made of around 70% paperboard, 25% plastic and 5% aluminium. The thin aluminium layer plays a vital role in protecting the food product but also poses some environmental challenges.

Torben Vilsgaard, Tetra Pak

We need to find alternatives to aluminium to reduce the use of our planet’s scarce resources. Aluminium is a non-renewable material that has to go through complex and energy-intensive processes to be extracted – and the aluminium foil in our aseptic cartons contributes to a third of the greenhouse gas emissions linked to the base materials we use. In addition, there aren’t yet industrial-scale solutions that can extract aluminium from post-consumer cartons.

As part of our approach to design for recycling, we’re investing in research and development to find renewable materials that can help us replace the aluminium foil in our aseptic cartons, shift away from virgin, fossil-based plastic and increase the share of paper-based content in our carton packages. We’re also supporting cross-border collaboration and investing with recyclers and industry players worldwide.

Working on a new paper-based barrier 

As part of a large-scale technology validation involving around 25 million packages that is currently ongoing in Portugal, we launched an aseptic carton for milk featuring a paper-based barrier together with Lactogal, a leading dairy player in the country. Made of approximately 80% paperboard, this world-first package increases the renewable content to 90% and reduces its carbon footprint by 33%1. It also offers up to a 9-month shelf life for liquid dairy products distributed under ambient conditions, as it protects the food inside from light and oxygen. 

woman designing a beverage carton packaging on a tablet

This development in our ongoing work to design beverage cartons for recycling – something that is continuing to set the pace for the paperisation of packaging – shows that it’s possible to make aseptic beverage cartons that are more sustainable while securing food safety and enhancing food access. 

Design is only the beginning

Although essential to accelerate recycling, design for recycling is only the beginning of the recycling journey for a carton package. Before it can be separated and transformed into valuable new materials, it needs to be collected from the consumers, which is a crucial step in the process. 

We’re working collaboratively across the recycling value chain to accelerate collection and sorting, boost recyclers' capacity and efficiency, and help build markets for recycled materials. And we’re investing up to €100 million per year over the next five to ten years to further enhance the environmental profile of food cartons, including developing packages made with a simplified material structure and increased renewable content.

Our recycling ambitions are high, and we still have much to do. You can read more about our recycling journey here


Carbon Trust-certified Tetra Pak ‘Carton CO2 Calculator’ model version 9 (valid from 2023-01-01). Scope: cradle-to-grave measurement of a Tetra Brik® Aseptic 200 Slim Leaf carton with plant-based polymers in coating and paper-based barrier compared to a standard Tetra Brik® Aseptic 200 Slim Leaf package. Geography: EU Industry data.

Tetra Pak Sustainability report FY23 front cover

Tetra Pak Sustainability Report

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