Holistic consumerism is on the rise. Not only are consumers pickier about the food they put into their bodies, but they’re also pickier about the packaging that these foods are being sold in and about what the companies selling them are doing to give back. 

From tackling climate change to addressing workplace diversity and food security, Tetra Pak is committed to making it easy for consumers to feel proud of purchasing a product with the Tetra Pak stamp. Following the recent launch of their 2019 Sustainability Report, we connected with Scott Byrne, the company’s Environmental Specialist for the US and Canada, to learn about their mission to “Protect What’s Good,” their commitment to a circular economy, and how innovation plays a key role in all that they do. 

Tetra Pak’s 2019 Sustainability Report focuses on three main pillars — Futures, Food, and People. How do these three pillars work in harmony toward meeting sustainability goals?

SB: Futures, Food, and People is Tetra Pak’s interpretation of the three E’s of Sustainability — Environment, Economics, and Equity. Anyway you look at it, there is an acknowledgement that without a holistic focus on sustainability, we won’t be able to achieve our sustainability goals. The most common analogy that I hear is that each pillar is the leg of a stool — remove any one leg and the stool can’t stand.

What is a circular economy and why is it important to the future of the food industry?

Today’s economy is built upon a take-make-waste model, where valuable resources are sometimes only utilized for a few minutes before they are destined for a landfill. The circular economy is a shift where resources that are extracted and used are not viewed as waste, but instead are a valuable input into a new economically valuable process. The circular economy will gradually decouple economic growth from environmental impact.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines two cycles — one technical, which focused on products and components, and one biological, which is focused on biologically-based materials. The food industry can be seen sitting at the nexus of both cycles. A healthy biological cycle is critically important for agriculture and healthy soils, while an effective technical cycle is growing in importance when we look at the packaging choices that are used for food and beverages.

Read how artificial intelligence can facilitate the creation of a circular economy.

What do your recent partnerships with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Veolia mean for the future of Tetra Pak?

Tetra Pak signed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to further our own commitment to a low-carbon circular economy. We feel that only through joint efforts can the circular economy vision be fulfilled, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is well positioned to facilitate the journey.

Our partnership with Veolia is another step we have taken towards a circular economy. The partnership will ensure that all components of recycled beverage cartons can be recovered in the European Union by 2025. The focus of the partnership is to process the polymer and aluminum layers of a carton at a dedicated facility to increase the value of recycled cartons and to make recycling more efficient and valuable.

You plan to enable all components of used beverage to be recycled by 2025 in the EU and then in Asia. Will the U.S. and Canada be in the running as well?

Carton recycling in the US and Canada is driven by the Carton Council of North America (https://www.cartonopportunities.org/ and https://www.recyclecartons.ca/). The Carton Council is an industry group created by four leading carton converters, including Tetra Pak, dedicated to growing the carton recycling value chain. As part of this growth, there is a focus on developing end markets. The US currently has an end market in Iowa that recycles all components into boards for the construction industry (https://continuusmaterials.com/), and we hope to see further growth in this technology moving forward.

Lisa Ryden, the Recycling Director at Tetra Pak said, “… our approach to recycling involves working with many partners along the value chain, because a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” What do you think is the weakest link in the value chain?

The fun and sometimes frustrating part about working in the recycling industry is that finding your weakest link can be a game of whack-a-mole. When Carton Council was first formed in 2009, only 18% of US households had access to carton recycling and the weakest link was in the collection and processing infrastructure.

Through municipal partnerships and the provision of grants for equipment, we’ve been able to grow household access to carton recycling to over 62% in the past decade. This growth was a great success, but it shifted the weakest link to consumer education. To address this issue, the Carton Council also provides grants for municipalities to provide recycling education to their residents and businesses. 

Today, the news stories focused on China’s disruption of the recycling industry means the weakest link is broader consumer skepticism around recycling in general. That is why it is so important to let people know that recycling is still the reality in every corner of the US and Canada and that cartons have healthy end-markets where they make new products that range from green building materials to paper for cups and notebooks.

From sourcing your packaging responsibly to engineering sustainable equipment to proactively combating climate change, Tetra Pak is leading the charge for an environmentally sustainable future. What role does innovation play?

Innovation is the engine that moves sustainable change forward. Whether that innovation is the development of a new material or the more efficient use of materials, energy, and water in our current processes, there is a clear need to push our entire industry forward. Our development of paper straws is a good example of our approach to innovation. We recently began field testing paper straws in Europe, which made us the first carton packaging company to provide paper straws for beverage cartons in the region.

To learn more about Tetra Pak’s products and its commitment to a sustainable future, visit their website.

Download a copy of Tetra Pak’s 2019 Sustainability Report.