Binning Cartons, Burning Aluminium By Alex Volkers

You may be aware that residents of Forest Row can no longer put food and drink cartons in their recycling bins. Cartons look like cardboard, so why can’t we recycle them? As explained by Green Councillor Patricia Patterson-Vanegas, ‘it’s the beginning of a very long story to do with the problem of waste’. While East Sussex County Council’s (ESCC’s) new waste disposal arrangements actually make sense in light of the state of today’s cartons recycling industry, consumers should be aware of the structural composition of cartons in order to make informed purchases. It is their composition that makes them hard to recycle effectively. Questions remain about their suitability as such an abundant form of packaging in this environmentally challenged world.

There are two types of food and drink cartons, those made for ambient (or shelf-stable) products, and those for chilled products. Together they comprise the UK cartons packaging market of 60,000 tonnes of cartons per year. ACE UK, a cartons industry trade body, is composed of three members: Tetra Pak; Elopak; and SIG Combibloc. Cartons made for chilled products are made from paperboard with a wax liner. In contrast, ambient product cartons manufactured by ACE UK members are comprised of 75% paperboard, 21% polyethylene, and 4% aluminium. While paperboard cellulose fibre is relatively simple to recycle, the bonded polyethylene and aluminium layers – which form a multi-material called PolyAl – prove far more challenging. 

Cartons are popular with producers because they are highly effective at extending the shelf life of perishables. They also reduce transportation costs. By enabling rectangular packaging for liquids, as opposed to traditional circular bottles, they make liquid products more densely stackable. Patricia Patterson-Vanegas suspects that Forest Row is a ward that uses a lot of Tetra Pak, ‘every time we buy rice milk, for example, we are supporting packaging that is damaging the environment’, she says. 

In Forest Row, residual household waste – everything that goes into your ‘landfill’ bin – is sent to Newhaven’s Energy from Waste facility. In Newhaven, it is converted into enough electricity to power 25,000 homes. It was ESCC that made the decision to exclude cartons from household recycling, because the new recycling disposal contractor – Viridor – does not have capability to recycle them. Considering the size and sophistication of Viridor’s recycling facility in Crayford, this decision says a lot about the challenges of recycling cartons like Tetra Pak. Cartons will now be incinerated at the Newhaven facility along with the rest of our residual waste. While cartons comprise just 0.25% of our total waste, the environmental logic of this new arrangement really depends on an understanding of the state of cartons recycling in the rest of the country.

Carton manufacturers like Tetra Pak have taken commendable action to reduce their carbon footprint. ACE UK spokesperson Debbie Daly insists that the paper component has a positive carbon footprint, because producers’ forestry investments have led to more trees being planted than are felled for production. In spite of this, local waste expert Alan Potter of Beyond Waste believes that, ‘we should be moving away from creating multi-material packaging that is complicated to deal with’. Sustainability is about much more than an item’s carbon footprint. Alan’s view is that cartons, ‘are not the instant panacea that people seeking to reduce their plastic consumption think they are’, and not just because they contain polyethylene, a type of plastic. 

The UK’s only specialist cartons recycling facility was opened in 2013 in West Yorkshire. It is a partnership between ACE UK and Sonoco Alcore, a paper producer that makes coreboard from the reclaimed cellulose on the same site. Tetra Pak, Elopak, SIG Combibloc and Sonoco fund the facility. It has the capacity to recycle 40% of the UK’s 60,000 tonne annual cartons market, but is not currently running at capacity. Debbie Daly claims that since the facility opened in 2013, ‘it has recycled over 400 million cartons – enough to circumnavigate the world!’. While ACE UK is proud of this statistic, it’s evocative of the scale of our cartons waste; imagine how many cartons we are consuming globally. 

Historically recycling has recaptured the cellulose fibre only, with the PolyAl residue being incinerated, says a Viridor spokesperson. When ACE UK began operating its facility in West Yorkshire, their PolyAl residue was sent to China to be recycled. However, ‘following the Chinese Government’s decision to prohibit the importing of certain plastics into China in 2018, we were left without a recycling solution’, Debbie Daly says. Since then, all of ACE UK’s PolyAl has been incinerated at Energy from Waste facilities, as an interim measure. ‘When aluminium foil is put into an Energy from Waste plant, the aluminium actually burns. This means that it is lost forever. That’s a valuable resource that could have been perpetually recycled’, Alan Potter observes.

Aluminium is a high impact non-renewable resource. It is primarily mined as bauxite, an ore that anthropologist Felix Padel has noted improves soil fertility, and is often present in the lands of surviving forest dwelling communities. The survival of these communities becomes threatened when mining companies discover bauxite. The well-publicised Dongria Kondh resistance in India is a case in point. Opencast mining is required to extract bauxite. All plant and animal life on the land must be cleared, damaging biodiversity and destroying habitats. To get aluminium from bauxite, energy intensive electrolysis is required. Hydroelectric plants are often built specifically to power aluminium smelters, leading to further human displacement and vast ecosystem destruction. The top exporters of aluminium are a long way from Europe, so transportation impacts are also a consideration. In light of all of these impacts the logic of incinerating aluminium, when it is so hard won, seems flawed.

The question is whether the aluminium in cartons can be viably recovered from PolyAl. There are some developments on the horizon. ACE UK is planning to launch a PolyAl recycling facility in the Netherlands this autumn, but will not comment on whether it will reclaim aluminium or reprocess the PolyAl for other industrial uses. Another facility is set to launch soon in Germany. Tetra Pak and Veolia have also recently announced a partnership that will use PolyAl as a combined material to make crates, but would not comment on their end of life treatment or whether they would be recyclable. However, given present recycling capabilities, where cartons are being recycled it is unlikely that the aluminium is being reclaimed at all. 

Patricia Patterson-Vanegas believes that incineration is far from ideal and says, ‘the campaign has to be with Tetra Pak’. After a recent consultation period, the government has stated that an extended producer responsibility scheme will be launched in 2023. But in the meantime, what is the lesson for Forest Row residents? ESCC is considering installing cartons containers at Household Waste Recycling sites in the county. But as explored above, at present it is likely that only the paper, the lowest value resource, will be reclaimed. While studies have concluded that recycling paper is lower impact than incinerating it, Alan Potter notes that these global studies may have omitted local factors, like the transportation – and carbon footprint – reduction of having an Energy from Waste facility within the county. Without further studies there is really no conclusive answer. In relation to aluminium waste, the new move to incinerate cartons in East Sussex may not have a dramatic impact, because the PolyAl liner probably would have been incinerated anyway. ESCC is clearly trying to take a pragmatic approach. What consumers do need to consider, however, is whether they can continue to support cartons packaging, and resource waste, at all. 

Tetra Pak refused to comment