With a background in engineering, Lisa joined Tetra Pak 13 years ago, moving to our environment function in 2012. She became Tetra Pak’s Director of Recycling in early 2017. Here, we talk to her about our company’s longstanding pioneering approach to recycling and a future that’s moving ever closer to the circular economy.
We use high quality raw materials to make our packaging and fulfil our mission to make food safe and available everywhere. On average more than 70 percent of our packaging is made using paperboard, which is a renewable, recyclable and truly biodegradable material. Once our packaging has fulfilled its purpose, that doesn’t mean the value in the raw materials is all used up. Instead, those materials can be collected and recycled into something useful, rather than being wasted. When Tetra Pak cartons are collected and recycled into something new and useful, it also prevents littering, saves resources, and reduces climate impact. Recycling has always been a critical part of the Tetra Pak sustainability story. Now it is more than a license to operate – it’s actually a business imperative.
Over the last two years, I have seen a significant increase in interest in recycling from many of our stakeholders. First and foremost, most of our customers - including all our global accounts - want to talk to us about recycling. They are making their sustainability commitments public and are relying on us to help them fulfil them. A lot of this increase in interest has been driven by new attention to the massive problem of plastic ocean pollution and littering. Even though Tetra Pak mostly uses paperboard to make our packaging, we are part of this conversation because we use some plastic. Earlier this year, we made a pledge to support the EU’s new Plastic Strategy, which is further focusing our efforts on renewability, use of recycled materials and recycling.
We take a value chain approach to recycling – from consumer awareness, collection and sorting, through recycling, to market. That means we don’t just work towards better collection of cartons (after consumer use), we also aim to increase the number of businesses ready to recycle those cartons into something useful and valuable. That kind of value chain is only possible if all the necessary stakeholders are involved, from policy makers, to those raising awareness among consumers, to those creating the collection infrastructure. Recycling looks different in different countries so, to focus on the most impactful actions, we analyse the local value chain to find bottlenecks we can help unblock. This might include running consumer awareness campaigns, contributing to collection infrastructure and making equipment investments in recycling operations.
Tetra Pak is recognised as a knowledgeable and experienced pioneer in our work to expand recycling of beverage carton packaging around the world. We are driving local recycling initiatives in more than 70 countries. This makes me very proud and motivated! Here are three quick examples of our recycling achievements:
A chain is no stronger than its weakest link. Because our approach to recycling involves a chain of actors along the value chain, a weak or missing link – such as a lack of efficient collection systems - is a problem. While it’s tempting to look for one solution to the problem of recycling, there is no one-size-fits-all. Recycling happens locally, and we need to be there, unblocking bottlenecks and partnering with the right stakeholders. In line with the current anti-plastic sentiment, we are putting more emphasis on improving the recycling of the polymers in our packaging material. While polymers only make up a small percentage of each Tetra Pak package, it is still an important issue for us to address.
Different recycling markets are at different levels of maturity – some are advanced, some are just starting out. In particular, countries with effective waste legislation and infrastructure are further ahead than those without. Our desired state for recycling is to have a well-established and sustainable recycling value chain for beverage cartons in every market where Tetra Pak packages are sold, and we adapt our initiatives to match market maturity. To measure our progress, we monitor leading indicators such as consumer awareness, consumer access, recycling capacity and material prices. Obviously, as a result of all of this, we want to increase the overall number and rate of packages recycled so this is something we track the development of.
I mentioned some of our overall achievements above. At a local level, each step of progress really is a milestone, and here are a few recent examples:
*In late 2016, 60% of US households had access to beverage carton recycling. Up from 18% in 2009, that figure is the threshold at which package recycling is considered mainstream and can use an unqualified recycling logo.
* We have partnered with companies in the recycling industry in South Africa to establish beverage carton recycling. Last year, the country’s second recycling facility for beverage cartons was opened, in an event attended by the minister for Environmental Affairs.
We are in this for the long run and it is truly a journey. The drive for a circular economy is here to stay, and I guess we are only at the beginning. This will give rise to innovations in package design, collection, sorting and recycling that will enable higher recycling rates of packaging materials.