Tetra Pak is to work closely with Smith Anderson, customers and local authorities to establish post-consumer collection in what has been described as a groundbreaking step in improving recycling practice in the UK. Rodney Abbott asked environmental communications manager Richard Hands to explain his company's thinking

The agreement is the culmination of two years co-operation between the Smith Anderson Group and the Liquid Food Carton Manufacturers Association, representing the major liquid carton manufacturers, and it follows extensive trials and research at Smith Anderson’s paper mill in Leslie, Fife [see PTI March, page 7].

The Smith Anderson Group is the leading independent, fully integrated, recycler and manufacturer of paper, paper packaging and envelopes in Europe.

The trials not only demonstrated the technical feasibility of recycling cartons, but also that carton fibre is exceptionally strong and long. This makes the beverage carton an excellent raw material for a number of Smith Anderson’s products, such as paper carrier bags, envelopes and document wallets, and is an ideal substitute for virgin pulp, some of which is needed to maintain the strength of paper that is continually recycled.

This success paved the way for investment in new equipment at the mill to allow it to reprocess large quantities of beverage cartons. Although cartons owe their effectiveness to their layered or laminated construction, this naturally complicates the recycling process.

New screening equipment is therefore being installed to remove the thin layers of plastics and aluminium and the plastics openings and closures from the pulp so that the high-quality fibres can be recovered. The carton manufacturers and Smith Anderson are providing this investment on a shared basis.

The new equipment will allow Smith Anderson to recycle all the waste carton material from the UK’s converting plants and from customers’ production sites, as well as a proportion of cartons used by consumers. Although small-scale reprocessing is already under way at the mill, when fully operational in August 2003 the mill will have the capacity to reprocess 20% of all the liquid food and drink cartons on the UK market.

Initially, there will be a small number of pilot schemes to test the economics and effectiveness of different kinds of collection schemes – doorstep collection, bring-back points, schools collection and so on – and the most successful will be progressively rolled out across the UK.

It is hoped that existing collection schemes run by local authorities and their contractors will also add cartons to the materials they collect.

The Smith Anderson facility is also vital to the success of carton recycling in Ireland, and Tetra Pak Ireland is actively promoting collection from customers and consumers.

Since the announcement of the launch, interest among the local authorities and other organisations has been very encouraging.

“This is a key part of our environmental strategy,” says Richard Hands. “The beverage carton is a lightweight, low resource use, energy-saving package designed to make a minimum impact on the environment throughout its life cycle.

“It is also the only drinks package on the UK market made principally from a renewable resource – wood – but it has not been recyclable in the UK until now. This completes the picture.

“It is also good news for our customers. Apart from being seen to be using a packaging system with an excellent environmental profile, carton recycling will enable them to improve their own environmental performance and save money by not sending their process waste to landfill.

“Retailers, too, can improve customer service and their environmental image by providing post-consumer carton collection points. The initiative will also help local authorities to meet increasingly strict recycling targets and, last but not least, consumers who want to do their bit for the environment.

“This is therefore a major step forward for the whole value chain, given the trend towards ever-higher landfill costs, tightening regulations and increasing consumer awareness of environmental issues.”

The UK does not have a good recycling record compared to most of its neighbours. Cartons are successfully recycled throughout Europe where the high quality wood-derived fibres have consistently been valued. Indeed, 25% of all beverage cartons placed on the whole EU market were recycled during 2001.

“We plan to ensure that this forward looking industry initiative helps bring the UK closer to the high standards set by countries like Sweden and Germany,” adds Mr Hands. “The longer-term aim is also to recycle the plastics and aluminium so that cartons are fully recyclable.”

The carton manufacturers were able to put Smith Anderson in touch with Scandinavian expertise. Smith Anderson representatives visited mills in Sweden, and Swedish experts made the return journey to spend time in Scotland. Such co-operation has characterised the entire project. Tetra Pak’s own engineers in Sweden and Belgium also made useful contributions and were able to suggest equipment suppliers.

The engineering project at the mill has benefited from advice from overseas. Similarly, Tetra Pak believes that UK carton collection schemes can draw on experience in other countries. “We are now looking at what can be learned from successful schemes in a variety of countries.”

The fibre, which makes up between 75 -90% of a typical UK drinks carton, will be almost entirely recovered by the specialist new plant after the cartons are first pulped in water, a process which takes only about 15-20 minutes for 2 tonnes of dry material.

Beverage cartons can only be made from virgin fibres for sound food safety reasons. Their fibres are long, strong and are of high quality. As they will not be pulped with other types of paper, such as newspapers, the fibres will be recovered without being mixed with those of lower quality. Their benefit will therefore be maximised.

Smith Anderson has quality control processes that precisely maintain the grade of the paper produced.

How does Tetra Pak see its future recycling programme panning out and what major challenges face the company?

“One of the first tasks will be to establish a number of regional collection hubs that will take carton waste from many sources, bale it and arrange transport to the mill,” says Mr Hands.

“Given that the UK’s recycling collection infrastructure is still relatively undeveloped, there is no doubt that collecting large quantities from consumers will be a challenge but we are determined to really drive this over the coming months.

“Our aim is to make the carton collection the norm, rather than the exception, and fill the processing capacity at the mill. The pilot schemes will tell us more about likely success rates of different methods but several factors will help in the longer term.

“Firstly, the cost of not recycling will rise. Landfilling as much as we do in this country is seen as increasingly unacceptable and one way of reducing landfilling is to make it more expensive.

“Secondly, the local authorities have been set ambitious recycling targets and many are now in the process of extending doorstep collection schemes.

Thirdly, the public are increasingly aware of the need to recycle and will expect more packaging to be collected and recycled.”