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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Renewable Materials and Value Chain Circularity:
The Case of Tetra Pak

From manufacturing to end of life, Tetra Pak is committed to engaging its entire value chain to drive low-carbon circularity. But as VP of Sustainability Jason Pelz explains, just looking at recyclability and recycled content won’t get you there.

In efforts to curb waste, address the climate crisis and respond to resource scarcity, the food and beverage packaging industries are under pressure to incorporate more recycled materials into their products. But this singular emphasis on recycled content overlooks other ways to achieve a low-carbon, circular economy: more bio- or plant-based materials that can be responsibly regrown and require less energy to manufacture.

“We at Tetra Pak look at things holistically,” Jason Pelz, VP of Sustainability at Tetra Pak Americas, told Sustainable Brands™. “We look at [our products] from a life cycle standpoint; and in our mind, if we can use a plant-based material in the first place we’re starting at the beginning of the value chain … Using renewable materials is a key way to achieve that.”

Improving its products is an important part of Tetra Pak’s emissions-reduction targets, leading the packaging giant to investigate the role renewable, virgin materials must play in a low-carbon, circular economy.

The case for renewable virgin materials

“By using a plant-based component in your package, you’re beginning the process of lowering the carbon footprint at the beginning of the life cycle.”

A typical Tetra Pak® package contains approximately 74 percent wood fiber, 22 percent polymer and 4 percent aluminum. Non-renewable aluminum — only 4 percent of the package by weight — makes up approximately 40 percent of a package’s total carbon footprint — which would be much higher if renewable, plant-based materials weren’t incorporated from the beginning. Tetra Pak’s ongoing efforts to replace non-renewable materials such as aluminum and fossil-based polymers with renewable materials will produce further reductions in CO2e.

Cradle to gate, a typical Tetra Pak container emits just slightly more CO2e than is captured in the material used to produce it. A competing 570mL plastic pouch, on the other hand, produces almost as much C02e during production and transport alone as a Tetra Pak carton produces throughout its life cycle.

“If we’re really trying to drive a low-carbon, circular economy, you have to consider plant-based products,” Pelz asserts. “If you take only fossil-based products and recycle them, at some point you still have virgin inputs — and fossil-based product inputs have a higher footprint than plant-based.”

Forests regrow and, if managed properly, reduce carbon footprints at the very beginning of the value chain. All of Tetra Pak’s wood fiber is Forest Stewardship Council-certified — meaning it’s sustainably sourced, safeguards biodiversity, and protects indigenous rights and interests.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) footprints vary by package, but one thing is clear: “If you can add that beginning part as a renewable product, you’ve just lowered [the carbon footprint] in the initial part of that life cycle,” Pelz explained. “What we find typically in LCA studies is that renewable content will have a lower carbon footprint than fossil-based.”

Why not use recycled material?

“You really have to take the whole value chain into consideration. Just looking at recyclability and recycled content doesn’t get you there.”

While the use of recycled content is important, it focuses on the back end of the material life cycle; whereas renewable, bio-based materials engage the front end. Recycling serves circularity, and circularity serves the chief goal of a carbon-free or carbon-negative economy. But reaching that end needs to start at materials sourcing and carry on throughout the value chain.

The challenge lies in companies facing logistical barriers to incorporating renewable materials into their products, or that recyclability takes center stage from a policy standpoint.

“We believe that renewable material should have a place in [recycled content policy] as well; usually in the first draft [of a policy] it’s not there, but that’s starting to change,” Pelz said. “Usually if they talk about renewable content, it’s at a high level; but I think it’s something that has to be fully considered and incorporated.”

Fiber recyclability dominates the packaging landscape because it’s been reduced to an oversimplified equation: Cutting down trees = fewer trees = bad. Recycling = fewer virgin resources = less waste = good. And while recycling is still a critical goal for Tetra Pak (the company is on track to have a fully recyclable package made wholly of renewable or recycled materials by 2030), renewable resource use is a more nuanced reality. It all starts at the source — where virgin, low-carbon, plant-based material becomes feedstock for other products.

Tetra Pak containers are an important feedstock for the development of new products created from recycled cartons. Tetra Pak’s commitment to source renewable material ensures that its products’ recovered materials start off as low-carbon and renewable as possible, a legacy that continues down the circularity pipeline.

If a renewable polymer or fiber can be recycled into itself, you get the best of both worlds. And that’s the secret sauce to a low-carbon, circular economy: Start renewable, then recycle.

“You have to have both,” Pelz said. “You can’t look at recycled content or renewability as the end-all-be-all — you have to have a combination of the two.”

The moral? Use recycled material when you can; and when virgin material is a must, go for renewable. The result will send ripples down the value chain of entire industries.

Tetra Pak is committed to reducing its products’ footprint further. Think about that 4 percent of aluminum owning approximately 40 percent of the package’s carbon footprint: The company is resolved to finding alternatives to those non-renewable, carbon-intensive materials used in its products.

“If we could make a change to our packages with that alone, you could blow away a good chunk of the carbon footprint,” Pelz said.

Aligning goals, success and collaboration

By collaborating with industry groups such as the Carton Council and other business stakeholders, Tetra Pak actively engages both ends of circularity from cradle to grave. It’s also working with its customers to make sure that the process of filling Tetra Pak cartons is as sustainable as possible. It’s all part of the company’s 2050 climate-neutrality goal, which accounts for the entire value chain.

“This is something everybody has to be committed to,” Pelz said. “Without everybody doing it, we can’t make it happen.”

And the motivator? Ethics aside, Tetra Pak, its suppliers and its customers realize cutting waste, reducing energy consumption and finding renewable materials saves money in addition to meeting goals.

“Sustainability and reducing our impact on the environment has been key since the beginning,” Pelz said. “We need to find a way to incorporate more renewable and recycled content in our packages to help drive that, or we’re not going to achieve these goals.”

From manufacturing to end of life, Tetra Pak is committed to engaging its entire value chain to drive circularity.

“There’s a growing population that’s going to need food delivered to them safely,” Pelz concluded. “We want to make sure that we deliver a package that not only keeps that food safe, but also has as little impact as possible on the environment.”