At Tetra Pak, Trash Gets a New Lease on Life

At Tetra Pak, Trash Gets a New Lease on Life

Tetra Pak has transferred recycling technology developed in its German office to its plants all over the world. By Linda B. Bolido

Tetra Pak is picking up after itself, as it were, by recycling waste from its own packaging materials.

The revolutionary cartons produced by packaging giant Tetra Pak were used as containers for a broad range of products such as milk, juice, tomato sauce, and wine, and have now been converted into tables, chairs, trays, and even key holders. A few low-cost houses built by Habitat for Humanity in the Philippines are also sporting Tetra Pak "carton" doors.

The Philippines is the latest in a growing list of countries where the packaging giant Tetra Pak is using recycling technology developed in Germany to clean up the "mess" it is making. Quietly, it has started a recycling program that links up students, consumers, the physically handicapped and street children.

"Care and Share," the recycling program, has two components. A collection/retrieval campaign represents the "Care" part. Launched in 2002 with only eight schools initially participating, the campaign now involves 50 private schools. Special bins have been installed in the schools where faculty and students can put the empty Tetra Pak cartons, including those from their homes. The campaign hopes to teach students to care for the environment by recycling starting with the Tetra Pak packages.

The program's other component, "Share with the Less Fortunate," has provided jobs to former street children cared for and trained by the non-governmental organization Tuloy sa Don Bosco ("Welcome to Don Bosco," a Catholic vocational school). The Tetra Pak program has also given new money-earning opportunities for the disabled workers at the Tahanang Walang Hagdanan, Inc. (Home without Stairs), another NGO that trains and employs the physically handicapped. The workers have substituted the Tetra Pak carton boards for plywood, using them for items like picture frames, desk organizers and small furniture, the sale of which helps sustain the institution's operations.

Tetra Pak's partner in breathing new life into discarded packages - and in providing gainful employment to street children - is the Trans-National Paper Corporation, formerly a publishing house, which is now in the paper recycling business. Trans-National uses a machine made by the Tetra Pak office in India in its manufacturing plant in Tanza, Cavite, some two hours southwest of the capital city of Manila.

Trans-National easily accommodated the recycling of used Tetra Pak cartons without a lengthy training or retraining for its workers. The process begins with the shredding of the packages. Shredded pieces are soaked in water then placed in a mold the size of a full-length board before passing through the machine that dries the board.

Lorenzo P. Ligot of the Tanza plant said boards from the packages contained exactly the same elements that the original cartons had. No chemicals were added during the process. The shreds were bound together by the plastic that was already a component of the original package. When heated, the plastic melted and spread, binding the other components.

Ligot said the board had already been used in a few houses built by Habitat volunteers. He added that the material was "cheaper than plywood, would not warp and was resistant to termites." It may not even be necessary to paint the board as it retains the colors of the packages used; giving the finished product built-in designs and colors. Ligot said the board might also be a suitable substitute for wallpaper because, aside from already having its own patterns and color, it was very flat when installed, eliminating the problem of bumps.

Tahanan workers substituted the boards for many of their products that would otherwise have used wood. At the moment, they are making picture frames, trays, key chains, desk organizers and clocks, pen holders, magazine racks, tables and chairs, among others, out of the Tetra Pak carton boards. Joy Cevallos-Garcia, Tahanan's chief executive officer, said she was drawn to the Tetra Pak initiative because "it helped clean the environment."

Aside from actual recycling of used cartons, Tetra Pak is also involved in advocating for environmental protection. Marily C. Gutierrez, communications and environment manager, said the company was organizing puppet shows in schools that brought the message of recycling to kids in an entertaining manner. "We also have videos on environment/recycling Tetra Pak packages (and will be distributing) a teacher's guide (teaching material for teachers about recycling, environment etc.)," she said.

The company, a consistent supporter of the Museo Pambata (Children's Museum), has set up a Tetra Pak Craft Room at the museum. For several years now, it has co-sponsored with the children's museum art contests for kids using Tetra Pak packages.

Aside from the Philippines, Tetra Pak has recycling programs in Germany (paper and boards that are made into furniture), Chile (boards), Thailand (paper and boards), India (boards), Pakistan (boards), China (boards), and Italy (paper).

Manila-based Linda Bolido is a correspondent for WRI Features, an international news and features service on environment and development issues.