Are Tetra Paks recyclable or compostable? In general, the answer is no, Tetra Paks are not recyclable or compostable as is because they combine paper and plastic - and some even contain hidden metal.
Specifically, for the milk cartons with a round middle cap, you have to remove the plastic spout first to give them a shot at being compostable. I try various ways to cut the spouts out of the cartons. All of them are annoying and lead to many words in Italian.
(Of course you know already that any pure paper soiled with food like a napkin is composted, not recycled, because it contains organic matter.)
The "Aseptic" Tetra Paks used for soups, juices and more on the shelf contain alternating layers of paperboard, polyethylene plastic, and aluminum foil (see diagram below). As Whole Foods San Francisco told me this week, these have to be trashed. There is no green hope for these overzealous fusions.
I talked with the godfather of green design, William McDonough, about the Tetra Pak problem. He said that they are a "monstrous hybrid" of paper and plastic and asked, "Why don't they just make the spout out of a biodegradable plastic?" This is what makes William McDonough so brilliant. If this were the case, then the entire carton could be composted as a whole.
Have you noticed that Tetra Paks are taking over supermarket shelves? They seem to be multiplying like weeds. It is unsettling that many of my favorite organic products have switched to Tetra Paks. This is inconsistent with their brands. You can't say that you are the "greenest milk" or "the best organic soup" if you are utilizing a non-green package.
In an ironic twist, Tetra Pak periodically sponsors planetary events and professes to be "one the most environmentally-friendly packages on the market." This is greenwashing. Tetra Pak will not be an eco-star until their cartons use a high percent of recycled paper and are able to be fully composted. They try to trick us by saying that their cartons are made "mainly from a renewable resource," but we are not fooled. Paperboard is not green unless it is made from FSC-certified or recycled paper!
If most Tetra Paks are going to landfills, which I suspect they are, then they are contributing to global warming. Because all wastepaper used to be a forest, paper breaks down in landfills and releases potent greenhouse gases into the air.
In the UK, they are testing a separate collection process for "recycling" Tetra Paks. People would collect them separately and send them to a dedicated facility. This seems like a good step, but why put an additional burden on others and why not just solve the root of the problem? This recycling process has been reported to be bogus, being put on for show to distract us from the real issue. In fact, Tetra Pak currently favors incineration as their preferred option: burning the cartons into a cloud of toxic smoke.
The No Tetra Pak Pledge
I am now trying not to buy anything that comes in a Tetra Pak. For example, Clover Stornetta Farms organic milk still comes in a carton without a plastic spout. Today was my first morning composting since making the pledge, and let me tell you, I am living large in San Francisco! It was so much easier. No pesky spouts to try to cut out, and no hidden metal in the cartons. Everything went into the BioBag and then into the green bin. Voila.
Let's encourage Tetra Pak to walk their talk. Let's encourage our favorite products to use true eco-friendly cartons. Let's design smart packaging so that valuable resources can be recovered and reused. In the meantime, I invite Tetra Pak to my residence on a weekly basis to help me do eco-chic composting. One morning with me should do the trick.