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Is Tetra Pak Packaging for Wine & Other Products Truly Sustainable?

Q: I've been seeing more and more brands of wine sold in cardboard containers and other alternative kinds of packaging.and promoted as the latest enviro-friendly trend. But I always thought that bottles were very good because they can easily be recycled. Why the move to replace glass, and is this new packaging really greener?

A: As the wine bottles and cartons piled up in our recycling bin over the holidays, we were asking ourselves this question too. Unfortunately, the answer is not a simple one, and involves many "on the other hands" and some mucking through the swamp of perceptions and marketing.

Although a few wines are being made available in aluminum and plastic containers, the main product we're talking about here is the Tetra Prisma® Aseptic package made by Tetra Pak for wine (and other drinks like juice, soy beverages, etc.) It is marketed as environmentally-friendly and is becoming very popular with wine consumers. Australia, Argentina, Sweden, Spain and Italy are far ahead of North America. in embracing wine in non-bottle packages; for instance, nearly half of the wine sold in Australia comes in a box. But Canada and the U.S. are catching up. When French Rabbit wines were introduced in Canada in the summer of 2005, they were available in both glass bottle and Tetra Prisma® packaging. One month later, sales for the Tetra packaged wine were 21 times greater than the same product in glass bottles.

A large part of the marketing for these products focuses on how they can be shipped more efficiently due to their lighter weight and less fragility than glass bottles, and the fact that their squared-off shape allows them to be stacked more efficiently into warehouses and delivery trucks. So presumably, fewer trucks are required to transport the wine, resulting in less air pollution. (It also, we are told by our carless friends, makes the wine easier to carry home ­ we'll let you decide how many points that earns on the eco-scale.)

One important aspect of eco-friendliness is the amount of resources and energy used in the manufacturing process. Tetra Pak claims that the unique filling process (from the bottom) also contributes to the considerably less energy used compared to glass bottles. It also says that these wine boxes are made with less packaging than virtually any other comparable container, which means they create less waste from the start. The company says that a typical single-serve aseptic package provides a product-to-packaging ratio that is 96 percent beverage to only four percent packaging by weight. In contrast, by weight, PET (plastic) bottles are 95 percent product to five percent packaging, steel cans are 89 percent product to 13 percent packaging, and glass bottles are 71 percent product to 29 percent packaging.

A study in the early 1990s found that aseptic packaging had one of the lowest environmental impacts of any beverage container. The study was conducted by the Boston-based Tellus Institute for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It also noted that although glass appears to be an excellent packaging material, it actually has a higher environmental impact per use than paper and plastic. Hence glass should be avoided when possible, Tellus said.

Like glass, these wine boxes are considered to be recyclable. Helped along by Tetra Pak, nearly 12 million households in 25 U.S. states can currently include their aseptic cartons in curbside programs, with new communities joining on all the time. The company says that in Canada, approximately 78 percent of households can recycle the cartons through deposit/return and curbside collection programs.

The trouble is that just because something can be recycled doesn't mean it will be. Tetra Pak's goal is to reach a ten percent recycling rate in the U.K. by 2008 and 25 percent globally. The Canadian recycling rate for the containers is reportedly anywhere from 15 to 25 percent. (Tetra Pak says, a bit aside from the point, that those packages that do end up in landfills take up less space than bottles.)

Unfortunately, in areas without deposit and return programs, the recycling rate for glass isn't great either. For instance, the Ontario Environment Commissioner has noted that one-third of wine and liquor bottles in the province currently end up in garbage dumps. (The province is currently launching a wine and liquor container return program that will include Tetra Pak cartons as well.)

Another problem is the definition of the term "recycling." Optimally, recycling means that products are in a closed manufacturing loop, where old cans are remanufactured into new cans, old bottles become new ones and so on. Only a small percentage of bottles from curbside collection programs are actually made into new bottles because too many are smashed in the collection process. Cross-contamination among all the collected materials is another problem that often degrades what consumers try to recycle, ultimately relegating the material to lower uses like concrete, asphalt and fiberglass insulation. This process is called "downcycling."

Reuse, where containers are cleaned and refilled, is preferable to recycling. However, that is not possible for a product like a wine box, which is a composite of a number of materials. Unfortunately, that construction ­ six fused layers of paper (70 percent,) polyethylene (24 percent) and aluminum (six percent) fitted with plastic caps and spouts ­ also makes wine boxes hard to recycle.

In addition to working with governments on recycling, Tetra Pak has helped plastic reprocessors to develop methods to separate out the materials. Aluminum and polyethylene particles are separated from paper fibers by a pulper. The paper fibers are downcycled into tissue and writing paper. A common process to recycle the polyethylene and aluminum involves combining the two materials into pellets for use in an injection-molding machine. So-called "plastic wood" is turned into benches, seedling pots and pails. However, this is still downcycling and we haven't been able to find a definitive statement of the energy used in the remanufacturing processes.

Nevertheless, this sort of effort has provided some positive recognition for Tetra Pak, which has been attacked for many years about the environmental impact of its aseptic containers. The U.K. Packaging Awards recently declared Tetra Pak "Environmental Company of the Year," based on its work on "energy efficiency, climate change impact reduction, biodiversity and sustainability reporting."

However good the reprocessing potential sounds in theory, in practice there is a major lack of processing plants. Canadian post-consumer Tetra Pak cartons are shipped to mills offshore, including the far east, or in the U.S. The one processing plant in the U.K. shut down last fall, meaning that country's aseptic containers had to be shipped to Scandinavia.

Transporting the post-consumer containers such long distances, in order to produce a downcycled product, is costly in environmental terms (even given their relatively light weight) and reduces any benefits brought about by recycling. And this is where the sustainability case for wine boxes really breaks down. In order for the green claims to be taken seriously, reality will have to meet theory.

Meanwhile, the controversy continues, although a variety of environmental organizations seem to have decided that aseptic packaging is a good thing. In 1996, some U.S. environment groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy, were on the panel that awarded the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development to the aseptic packaging industry.

Some groups are benefiting financially from their association with wine sold in Tetra Pak containers. Many of these projects are orchestrated in Ontario by the Natural Heritage Fund, a project of the government-owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), which, with 600 stores, is one of the world's largest retailers of wine and spirits. For instance, money from every aseptic package of Three Bandits wine sold in the province is donated to the Kortright Centre to help finance a new frog habitat. Evergreen and Botter Family Wines are partners in the promotion of the first organic wine sold in a box. Evergreen is expected to receive approximately $200,000 from the partnership. Australia's Banrock Station winery has tied the availability of some of its wines in the Tetra Pak packaging to its donation of $1.25 million to Bring Back the Salmon, a five-year project to restore reproducing populations of native Atlantic Salmon to Lake Ontario.

While that sort of consumption-based initiative might help save some frogs and bring the salmon back, it isn't going to solve the environmental problem created by the packaging. The aforementioned Tellus study made some conclusions not touted by the industry. Among them was that considering that the environmental cost of production contributes 99 percent of the environmental harm, reducing disposal isn't going to help as much as cutting production and, therefore, consumption. The solution, according to the Tellus study, isn't a matter of improving recycling or disposal rates, but consuming less packaging.

If we are going to achieve a sustainable economy, we must stop creating waste altogether. All manufacturing must be closed-loop because the Earth is a closed system. That means every producer must undertake cradle-to-grave responsibility for its product and its packaging.

Standard-sized reusable bottles could help us to approach the goal of waste elimination. But that would not be popular among marketers. For instance, one of the popular marketing innovations resulting from the increased use of the Tetra Pak aseptic packages for wine is the availability of some brands in single-serving containers, creating even more packaging to be "recycled."

So unless you can make your own wine and store it in reusable jugs or bottles, you have a choice of less-than-perfect packaging. Be sure you enjoy the wine, no matter its packaging, because neither bottles nor boxes are the perfect solution.

But you're definitely going to see more wine in Prisma® containers ­ a $4-million contract packaging facility just opened north of Toronto with a capacity of 35 million boxes a year.