Brazil’s small-scale business model for recycling post-consumer Tetra Paks

The time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is typically a period when people look back and forward and decide what they will do differently in the year to come. Well, let me give you something to contemplate, read this article, invite some friends for a nice diner or b-b-q and discuss with them this topic. Organize the community and get it started.

In a never ending process many a ‘green’ website maintains the discussion alive whether Tetra Pak containers are recyclable or not or whether Tetra Pak’s claim to be sustainable is correct. The ‘simpletons’ even want to ban Tetra Pak from the packaging world. Ignorance reigns supreme. I will be the last one to claim that Tetra Paks aren’t a problem in the recycling process and unfortunately mainly end-up on landfills (to stay there for hundreds of years). But it has to be said that it’s not all Tetra Pak’s fault.

Before I continue I have to state, that I am a believer in source-responsibility. In other words in my opinion the manufacturer of packaging material is responsible for it’s product up till the end (post-consumer situation). The recycling and recovering of post-consumer packaging material can’t be left to the public authorities, as they always find an excuse not to implement a collecting and recycling system and in the most positive situation are very happy to dumb it on a landfill.
Ok, there always are exceptions, but sadly enough too few.

Let’s first discuss the primary question. Can Tetra Paks be recycled? The answer is a simple, but firm: Yes, they can. It might not be a perfect ‘cradle-to-cradle’ life-cycle, but the ‘grave’ in ‘cradle-to-grave’ can be delayed quite some time, so that we, in several occasions, can speak of a ‘cradle-to-reincarnation’ cycle.

Worldwide there are some hundred paper mills which recycle post-consumer beverage cartons, recovering the paper part of the cartons. They vary in terms of size and type of production. The paper mill that recycles the most cartons is the German Papierfabrik Niederauer Muhle, recycling about 100,000 tonnes of cartons every year – the equivalent of 500 million beverage cartons. Unfortunately most of the pe/alu residue of the beverage carton continues to be dumped on landfills.

Other champions in beverage carton recycling are Corenso Varkaus in Finland, and Stora Enso Barcelona, in Spain. The most sophisticated recycling plant for Tetra Paks is Piracicaba in Brazil, which comes very close to the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ principal. The joint-venture between Alcoa Aluminio, Tetra Pak, Klabin and TSL Ambiental, uses groundbreaking plasma technology, which enables the total separation of aluminium and plastic components from the cartons. This innovative process constitutes a significant enhancement to the common recycling process for carton packaging, which separates paper, but keeps plastic and aluminium together. The plasma process provides another option for recycling, allowing for the return of all three components of the cartons to the productive chain as raw material. However these three recycled components are not used in new Tetra Paks so that it’s not a perfect closed loop or cradle-to-cradle recycling.

The main problem with all these large scale and sophisticated recycling plants is the availability of post-consumer Tetra Paks, which requires the implementation of large-scale selective collecting systems. Only in some highly developed and well-organized countries and areas these systems exist. As a consequence the larger part of the roughly 140 billion Tetra Paks (equivalent to 70 billion litre packs) used worldwide is dumped as common household waste and ends-up on landfills, adding nothing to the economy and just wasting prime-materials.

If I strictly interpret my statement, written above, that packaging material companies should be held responsible for the post-consumer residues of their marketed products, one can claim that it is Tetra Pak’s fault that so many beverage packs end-up as waste, polluting the planet disproportionately and frustrating its claim to be environmentally friendly and sustainable. The certification of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) doesn’t have any value in relation to the lack of properly handling the post-consumer situation.

Aware that there is few hope that local or national authorities arrange for a functional large-scale selective waste-collecting system and, in general, lack all creativity other than writing restricting laws and regulations, the Development Department of Tetra Pak in Brazil set to work.  
Of course they had the “Law of the Stimulating Backwardness” to their advantage, as there are few people in well-organized developed countries who think small and simple in terms of business opportunities. That’s quite different with emerging countries as Brazil, which due to its immense size and despite it’s recent economic and hi-tech development, is in many areas stuck with one foot in the 21st century and with the other somewhere in the 1950s.

As a result of the axiom: “Successful recycling shouldn’t be limited to huge quantities – small operations, or communities with access to fewer beverage cartons can successfully recycle too”, they developed a small-scale technology for the manufacturing of the so-baptized “green roof shingles”. It premises the valorisation of the small-scale recycling chain in a way to generate employment and income, while it intends to prevent tons of plastic and aluminium to end up on landfills.

The technology is as simple as effective. We all know, that Tetra Pak cartons consists of 75% paper, 20% polyethylene and 5% aluminium. With that in mind post-consumer beverage cartons are thrown into a hydropulper (just a large-scale kitchen mixer), while water is added, no chemicals are used. The material is run in batches of about 30 minutes during which time the rotating action and water separates the fibre from the polyethylene and aluminium. The fibre that has been separated is pumped to a dewatering machine to drain out excess water. The fibre is then ready to be sold to a paper mill.

Still sticking to each other, the polyethylene and aluminium, left in the hydropulper falls into a separate cage where it is shredded and laid out in the open to dry. Once it is dry, the polyethylene-aluminium shreds are layered in a tray which is then placed into a hot press. The layers are heat pressed at 180°C (356°F) forming a flat board of 2m x 1m (7 mm thick). When this board comes out of the hot press it is soft and can be cold-press moulded into corrugated roof shingles.

Presently there are in Brazil some eleven small companies producing corrugated roof shingles from recycled Tetra Paks.
Ecofuturo in Paraná is one of them, working in three shifts with nine employees. Interestingly, although thought to be a perfect solution for low-income housing, the farmers in Paraná prefer these roof shingles because they have a huge advantage over corrugated asbestos or aluminium roof shingles. The ‘Tetra Pak’ roof shingles do not transfer noise when it rains, avoiding disturbance and even heart attacks under the chickens or other animals the farmers raise. Furthermore the green shingles are superbly waterproof, inflammable, unbreakable, have a heat transfer 30% lower than shingles made from asbestos cement, are some 50% lighter saving on the construction, and finally 30% cheaper than the existing alternatives.

Each ‘green’ shingle (2 x 1 metre, 7 mm thick) produced is derived from 1,540 beverage cartons. To produce 1,000 green shingles per month, a factory consumes roughly 10 tonnes of post-consumer beverage cartons. To give you an idea about the potential market. Santa Cruz, a neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro with some 200,000 middle and low income inhabitants, consumes according to the Association of Traders of Building Materials (ACOMAC), some 40 tonnes of the asbestos type shingles per month.

According to Fernando von Ziben, director of Environment of Tetra Pak Brasil, the technology for production of roof shingles is already being exported to countries such as Argentina, Paraguay, China, Colombia, Costa Rica and South Africa. In South Africa Tetra Pak went a step further and commissioned a small scale recycling plant, based in Germiston, Gauteng, to show communities how they can profit from the recycling potential of Tetra Paks in South Africa.

Despite the success, Seidel Juliana Matos, an expert in environmental development of Tetra Pak Brasil, says the challenge now is to increase the collection of raw material. “It’s useless having companies or cooperatives able to produce these shingles without raw material. Communities have to be aware that the Tetra Pak packaging is worth money. The problem is that many don’t know that it can be recycled.”

But there are communities discovering this ‘gold mine’! Realizing not only that they help to save the planet, but also that they can finance their charity. One of the examples is the Paróquia de Santo Antônio (Parish of St. Anthony, in Bras de Pina, a 200.000 inhabitants suburb in Rio de Janeiro), which is collecting all kinds of Tetra Pak packages to be recycled and to be made into shingles, so they can finance the work in the orphanage for which they took responsibility. The community got the support of communication and design bureau Atrevo which designed the poster (see picture) as well as presentations in shopping malls in the region. Furthermore, they are motivating their parishioners to bring these post-consumer packages from their residences and their relatives to realize an ever increasing amount of revenue.

Community organizing, with two benefits: Go green and make money for charity. Something to think about for 2010.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And if you don’t support the word “Christmas”, may I wish you Happy Meaningful Holidays.