Transforming used cardboard into sustainable building materials

How Tetra Pak is working with industry partners to transform used cartons into sustainable building materials and introducing new initiatives to ensure all of its RTD coffee packaging is recycled.

Sustainability has been at the heart of Tetra Pak’s purpose since its founding in 1951. When Ruben Rausing launched the first tetrahedron-shaped paper milk carton more than 70 years ago, his vision was to make food safe and available everywhere.

Today, these founding principles remain rooted in social sustainability, but the focus is now squarely on the company’s impact on the planet.

“Ruben Rausing once said that packaging should save more than it costs,” says Vikas Ahuja, Tetra Pak’s Chief Sustainability Officer.

“Today, we apply this principle to our social and environmental impacts: not only comparing the cost of packaging to the cost of the product it contains, or the waste it avoids, but also the cost to the environment and the benefits to society through better nutrition.”

The global brand works with companies of all sizes to find processing and packaging solutions for the food and beverage industries. Ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee beverages are just one of its specialties, but the Tetra Pak team works to ensure that every carton of cold brew coffee and family pack of oat latte has the smallest possible environmental footprint.

One of its main goals is to create a circular system for its paper-based cartons, which are fully recyclable in the right hands. The wood fiber in Tetra Pak products, which is already a renewable resource, makes it an ideal material for producing items such as napkins and tissues, as well as more durable items like cardboard boxes.

“In Australia and New Zealand, we have partnered with startup saveBOARD, which transforms food and beverage cartons, coffee cups and more into a sustainable building material similar to plywood,” Vikas says.

“The cardboard boxes, including the caps, are shredded and pressed in an industrial-sized sandwich press. Thanks to the composition of the materials, there is no need to use chemicals or glues.”

Container deposit schemes across Australia accept RTD coffee cartons and allow consumers to recycle their used packaging. saveBOARD then turns them into building materials such as ceiling tiles and wall panels, but Tetra Pak is keen to go further and help the coffee community and RTD coffee producers ensure all their cartons are recycled.

“Take milk for example. Distributors deliver crates of milk packaged in Tetra Pak packaging and plant-based milk and then collect the empty crates,” says Vikas.

“We want to help facilitate a system where these distributors don’t have a van full of empty milk crates at the end of the day, but rather a van full of empty cartons that are a resource for initiatives like saveBOARD.”

Promoting recycling is not the only way Tetra Pak is working towards a greener future. The team is constantly evaluating the composition of its products, the materials and their composition.

“We are working to increase the renewable content of our products, so instead of using plastics derived from fossil fuels, we use plant-based materials,” Vikas explains.

“One of our goals is also to completely eliminate aluminum foil from our packaging. We are working on an alternative fiber-based barrier that will ensure a long shelf life without the need for refrigeration or preservatives.”

As Tetra Pak continues to grow in its environmental credentials, more coffee brands are choosing to partner with the company to create their own ready-to-drink beverages. In addition to offering sustainable packaging, the company works alongside its customers to research, develop, test and launch their products.

“The process starts with analyzing trends and consumer insights, and then thinking about how we can partner with the customer to apply those insights to their innovation journey. We also consider things like package size, shape and closure, as well as ensuring the best design outcomes,” says Michael Grigg, Head of Communications at Tetra Pak.

“A format that works particularly well in the ready-to-drink coffee space is the Tetra Prisma® Aseptic Edge, which features a DreamCap designed for optimal mouthfeel.”

In the US, Tetra Pak recently worked with Wandering Bear Coffee to develop a range of family-sized cold brew coffee cartons and servings.

“The Wandering Bear team summed up our approach perfectly when they said, ‘nothing makes us happier than finding that beautiful intersection between functionality and sustainability, where usability meets environmental friendliness,’” Michael says.

“We believe the ready-to-drink coffee sector has huge potential in Australia, and we encourage established and new brands considering launching a product in this space to contact us to discuss how we can support their innovation journey from concept to commercialisation.”

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This article appears in the June 2024 issue of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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