Plastic or tetra pak packaging? Which is less harmful to the environment?


Let’s talk about plastic and tetra pack packaging

Nowadays, manufacturers use different packaging for food products. In the beverage department, we see both aluminum cans, plastic and glass bottles, and tetra pak boxes. Juice, water, milk, carbonated drinks – packed in aluminum cans, plastic and glass bottles, tetra pak boxes. When buying a drink, is it important to You in which package it is poured?

What do you think is the best package to buy a drink in? In other words, which package is the least harmful to the environment: a plastic bottle or a tetra pak?

This is a complex question and depends on Your priorities – some of them have a lower carbon footprint during production. Others are more favorable in terms of reuse, recycling and waste.
When assessing the environmental impact of one type of packaging, many factors need to be taken into account. It’s not just about what it’s made of. Total carbon emissions are generated not only from the processing and manufacturing of the packaging, but also from transportation, recycling and decommissioning.

PET plastic bottle

PET is cheap and durable and can be one of the easiest types of packaging to recycle, easy to transport and unbreakable. However, it has its downsides.
Plastic bottles are usually made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource that takes hundreds of years to decompose when not recycled.
Plastic in itself is not evil, if only a person knows how to sort it properly.
According to global estimates for 2019, we recycle only 9 percent. of the world’s plastic. About 50 percent of plastic goes to controlled landfills, about 19 percent. is burned to produce energy, and about 22 percent ends up in uncontrolled landfills and the ocean.
Most companies are not reducing the amount of disposable bottles they use. They are focusing their efforts on “lightening” – thinning PET bottles to reduce costs, plastic use and carbon emissions, or adding recycled material.
Most recycled bottles are turned into polyester fiber – used to make clothes and furniture. Lids are recycled into garden furniture, bins and pipes, which in turn are often not recycled.
About 40% of plastic bottles that are not recycled end up in the environment and slowly break down into microplastics. This can take up to 450 years.
PET bottles require much more energy to produce than tetra pak and have a much higher carbon footprint of around 350g CO2e/liter. Plastic PET bottles cannot be reused, as sterilization would damage the plastic.
Plastic PET bottles are recyclable, but given the amount of potential recycling, their carbon footprint reaches as high as Tetra Pack’s highest CO2 recycling rates.
  • Recyclers use additives to increase the intrinsic viscosity of PET, which can degrade over time. This process allows PET to be recycled over and over again.
  • Easy to transport: lightweight and durable, reducing CO2 emissions during transport.
  • Production requires less energy compared to glass and aluminum.
  • Production uses oil and natural gas, which are non-renewable resources.
  • It is 100% pure, meaning it contains no processed ingredients.
  • PET breaks down into microplastics, affecting a variety of ecosystems, including oceans, freshwater ecosystems, and the air. Microplastics are suspected to reach marine food chains and enter our biological systems through a process known as biomagnification. Although the effects on human health are still unknown, microplastics are harmful to our marine life.

Tetra Pak packaging

plastic waste tetrapak
plastic-waste-tetra pak
Many of us, choosing tetra pak packaging, think that it is more beneficial for the environment, because it is a paper (cardboard) packaging that we sort with paper waste.
Most beverage cartons are made by the Swedish company Tetra Pak, so the company’s name has become synonymous with the product, although there are several other companies that make them. The boxes are about 75% cardboard, but this is layered with plastic (polyethylene) and a thin layer of aluminum to keep liquids outside the refrigerator, packaging:
  • 54% cardboard
  • 28% plastic
  • 15% protective film
  • 3% aluminum
For this reason, tetra pak is very difficult to recycle and is only accepted by special recycling facilities.
Although the tetra pak is technically recyclable, it is never “recycled” into the same packaging. Instead, it is reduced and converted into another product with lower quality material before it ends up in a landfill or incinerator. In short, it can never be part of a closed-loop recycling system.
Only around 26% of tetra pak is recycled globally (no UK data). This means a lot of tetra pak with plastic and aluminum entering the waste stream.
And when they are recycled, it is not a closed cycle – they are usually used to make building materials.
However, tetra pak packaging requires significantly less energy to produce than other packaging, making it a winner from a climate change perspective. One study found that a one-liter Tetra Pak carton has a carbon footprint of approximately 77-103 g CO2e/liter.
Other estimates are similar or slightly lower. Tetra paks are also easier to transport, and because empty Tetra paks can be shipped flat, they can fit far more in one shipment than glass bottles. In addition, it has a regular shape when filled, so it saves space.
  • Tetra Pak is made mainly from paper, a renewable resource.
  • Lower carbon footprint to produce.
  • Its rectangular packaging and lightweight material make it extremely easy to pack and transport.
  • Cardboard packaging is not 100% paper: it also contains aluminum and low-density polyethylene (plastic).
  • It is difficult to recycle due to the additional layers of plastic and aluminum, which ultimately cannot be separated from each other without specialized equipment.

So, what should you choose – Tetra Pak or PET plastic bottle?

It is difficult to say unequivocally.
When it comes to climate change (production and transportation), Tetra Pak boxes win, followed by plastic (and then aluminum, glass is the worst).
When it comes to plastic pollution and closed loop recycling options, plastic wins.
We, in turn, offer to try reusable thermos bottles of various sizes – from 0.5L to 1L or thermos cups – this will be the most environmentally friendly solution.

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