How to Recycle Tetra Paks

Tetra Pak is one of the most commonly used form of food packaging. Since it can take years for a Tetra Pak to decompose, it is crucial that such packages find their way to a professional recycling facility.

By Maryruth Belsey-Priebe

Fact checked by Sander Tamm

How to Recycle Tetra Paks
Recycling Tetra Paks / Ecolife / Sander Tamm

How Tetra Paks are made

At a glance, an average Tetra Pak looks very simple. However, have you ever wondered how is it possible that these containers can keep products fresh for such extended periods of time? Here are the all the layers used in producing a single Tetra Pak:

  • Polyethylene plastic layer #1 to protect against moisture from the outside
  • Paper layer to add stiffness and strength
  • Polyethylene plastic layer #2 for adhesion
  •  Aluminum foil layer as a barrier against oxygen, flavor loss, and light (to prevent nutrient loss)
  •  Polyethylene plastic layer #3 for adhesion
  •  Polyethylene plastic layer #4 to seal against leakage of liquid out of container

All of these layers make it possible to fill Tetra Paks with liquids and foods that can be stored without refrigeration for up to one year. But as you can imagine, all of these different layers also make Tetra Pak recycling rather difficult. In addition, the complex structure of a Tetra Pak makes the organic decomposition process a very long one.

How Tetra Pak recycling works

With all of those layers, how do recycling facilities handle Tetra Paks? The process includes pulping the cartons by mixing them with water and adding heat and blending. This breaks down the components into brown sludge at which point the aluminum and polyethylene components are separated from the paper fiber.

Each of the separate materials is then used to make new products – the cardboard is the main component recycled, and is made into things like egg boxes, paper bags, writing paper, tissue products, and envelopes. Aluminum and plastic are used for making new furniture, energy generation systems, and other consumer goods.

But the recycling process starts with you. Collecting recyclable materials is the first and usually the biggest obstacle to widespread recycling. As such, the customer has all the power to make a genuine difference. And, despite the recycling rates of Tetra Paks climbing up, there is still a lot of work to be done. The Carton Council of North America is aiming at a 25% recycling rate for beverage cartons by 2050.

This is not a particularly large number which illustrates just how important it is for every single consumer to step up their efforts. Here are two of the most simple options for recycling your Tetra Paks:

  • Curbside recycling: Look first for a curbside option by contacting authorities of your community recycling program to see if Tetra Paks can be included in your blue bin. If you’re required to separate the various components of your Tetra Paks from one another, check out this helpful, step-by-step instruction on deconstructing Tetra Paks.
  • Drop-off recycling: When curbside recycling isn’t an option, seek out local recycling centers that accept Tetra Paks. Feel free to use this helpful recycling center database to find the nearest suitable facility.

Reduce consumption of Tetra Pak products

If you’re not able to recycle Tetra Paks in your community then it’s a really good idea for you to limit how much you consume. Otherwise, you’ll be sending more trash to the landfill than is really necessary. You can do this by looking for packaging that is reusable or recyclable:

  • Look for milk and juice that’s sold in plastic jugs or glass jars
  • Choose canned food over that sold in Tetra Paks
  • Go for glass bottles when buying wine

Luckily, Tetra Pak itself is making an effort to make their packaging sustainable. For example, the paper used to create modern Tetra Paks is made of paper from wood fiber. Head over to the official website of Tetra Pak for a full overview of the carton recycling campaign initiated by Tetra Pak.