The best features in recycling
Clamouring to get in the box
The packaging industry looks favourably on cartons for beverage storage, but there are significant challenges to ensure they are recycled. Leonie Butler examines UK collection efforts and discovers why comparatively few make it into recycling containers and on to reprocessors
Another breakfast over, another orange juice carton to throw away. But wait, which bin does it go in? If you’re like my husband, it goes straight into the black recycling box. Even though I’ve told him time and time
again that our council does not collect them (that they need to go in the cupboard under the stairs, ready to be taken on a journey to the supermarket), he just cannot understand why, when we can recycle nearly everything else, these ubiquitous cartons are banned from the box. So, the carton is duly relegated to the cupboard, until the next time he goes to throw one away when it happens all over again.
And the next time always comes around quite quickly. Made up of virgin, FSC-certified paperboard (70-90 per cent), low-density polyethylene (10-25 per cent) and aluminium foil (about five per cent in long-life packages only), the innovative carton packaging has the ability to extend a product’s shelf life and is durable and lightweight, so is a popular packaging choice. As more and more of our food is being put into cartons – from juices to soups to tomatoes - the amount being put onto the market is rising at a rapid rate. The three major carton companies (Tetra Pak, SIG Combibloc and Elopak) put 58,000 tonnes of cartons onto the UK market last year. (With roughly 50,000 cartons in a tonne, that’s nearly three billion containers!).
Yet, despite the potential to recycle these items, most still wind up in black bin bags. At present, it is estimated that around 3,000 tonnes are recycled – just five per cent by weight. What’s more, with no dedicated carton recycling facility in the UK since the
closure of the Smith Anderson facility in Fife in 2006, and fears of contamination in other plants, the cartons that are collected for recycling are shipped to Sweden.
Once there, however, the process appears to be straightforward. Baled cartons are simply dropped into a pulper, similar to a giant domestic food mixer, filled with water and pulped for 20 minutes. This delaminates the packaging, allowing the aluminium foil and polyethylene to be separated from the paper fibres, which are recovered to make new paper products. (Contrary to popular belief, there is no wax in the cartons to contaminate the paper.) The plastic and foil elements are then used in furniture, to generate energy or even separated out using plasma technology into pure aluminium and paraffin.
Faced with the recycling figures, one might question the opportunities for recycling by the UK householder. However, according to Tetra Pak, a large proportion of the UK has access to carton recycling. Indeed, infrastructure-wise, the UK carton industry trade body, the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK) has been supporting local authorities to collect cartons for some time. The organisation provides bring site containers to encourage recycling and collects the cartons from council depots to send to Scandinavia.
Meanwhile, to date, 27.3 per cent of collection authorities take cartons in their recycling rounds, according to Fay Dashper, Recycling Manager at Tetra Pak, while 86 per cent overall have some sort of collection facility in their area. “Of the 406 local authorities, 111 collect at kerbside. Of those, 16 do kerbside sort, leaving 95 doing commingled collections.”
In terms of increasing capture of these multi-material beverage cartons, then, what needs to be done?
- Local Authorities
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