On October 1, 1998, B.C.’s Beverage Container Stewardship Program came into effect. The regulation expands the province’s deposit-refund system to include all ready-to-drink beverages except milk, milk substitutes and meal replacements. At the last minute, the province’s environment ministry granted a one-year extension to polycoat paper containers; these include gable top cartons and juice boxes (also called “aseptic containers”).
An industry committee has been established to deal with the issue. Members include pulp and paper representatives, Sun-Rype Products, Dairyworld Foods, the Juice Council of B.C., and Tetra Pak. The committee signed a Memorandum of Agreement to deliver a container-recycling plan by October 1, 1999.
In a position paper, the Recycling Council of British Columbia (RCBC) states that it is “utterly dismayed” at the terms of the extension which were worked out in secrecy and contradict the recommendations of a multi-stakeholder advisory panel.
The agreement forces industry to compensate recycler Encorp Pacific Inc. for lost revenue, but not municipalities for the cost of landfilling materials. Worse, says the RCBC, no consequences have been outlined for industry if it fails to satisfy the requirements of the extension deadline. (Other container producers face fines of up to $200,000 per day for regulatory noncompliance.) The RCBC also says the industry committee should not be allowed to access public funds via the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest Renewal B.C.
The RCBC has accused the government of caving in to industry delay tactics. It points out that, in Alberta, Tetra Pak lobbied intensively to maintain its exempt status from the province’s deposit-return system. But Alberta put the containers on deposit after a voluntary industry pilot project recovered less than 10 per cent of the containers.
While it’s true that Tetra Pak is experienced in the lobby game, it’s less clear that the company’s lobbying in B.C. is just a delaying tactic.
It’s long been known that aseptic containers offer tremendous environmental efficiencies from a life-cycle perspective, including minimal material and energy consumption. The containers don’t need refrigeration, and the use of preservatives, additives and toxins is minimized. However, in order to fight allegations from other packaging producers that drink boxes are still just “throwaway” packaging, the company has had to accept that its used containers still must be recycled.
On this front, the company might have looked to the RCBC for support, but the council points out that while juice boxes can “technically” be recycled, it’s not economic to do so. The containers must be shipped to plants in the United States and Mexico for hydrapulping (the process that separates Tetra Paks’ six layers to recover pulp, resin and foil).
It’s clear that the industry committee plans to establish a hydrapulping plant–probably in B.C. and possibly as a retrofit of an existing tissue paper mill. The government has stated through press releases that it hopes a “made in B.C. solution” will provide spin-off jobs, especially in the economically depressed forest products sector. Again, one might have assumed that the RCBC would favor this, given its disapproval of drink box export.
Instead, the RCBC points out that Tetra Pak has introduced an easy-to-recycle PET aseptic container in Europe and Asia which works for both linear and rotary filler technologies. What’s the point–the group implies–of building an expensive hydra-pulping plant when a simpler package could be introduced to the market?
Some might say it’s poetic justice that Tetra Pak is being “hoisted on its own petard” since it has used the fact that its packages are recyclable to fight regulations. But it’s indeed strange to hear the RCBC argue against the economics of recycling Tetra Paks outside Canada, then oppose the construction of a local hydrapulping plant.
The feasibility of Tetra Pak replacing its multi-material drink boxes with more-easily recycled single-plastic PET aseptic containers is a compelling revelation. But Tetra Pak’s Anne Mathewson replies that, while PET containers will be an option in future, “the company’s filling equipment is in customer plants” and any shift to PET will not occur overnight, especially without the cooperation of brand owners.
Tetra Pak is currently introducing a novel 8-sided single-serve container that has a larger, more convenient opening at the top. Unlike the regular drink box, these multi-layer containers don’t require a straw attached separately with a plastic wrapper. Such innovations will help the company capture more market share in the future. Would the company really want to jeopardize its position by offering the only container that can’t be economically recycled? It’s unlikely. Tetra Pak has recently announced plans to build hydrapulping plants in other jurisdictions such as Toronto. With these investments, there’s little reason to doubt the sincerity of Tetra Pak’s commitment to build a recycling plant for B.C. drink boxes by next fall.
Industry should be permitted to choose its preferred packaging materials (multi-layers or PET) so long as it takes responsibility for them. One year is not a long time to wait for an economically sustainable recycling system; one that will see the drink boxes actually recycled, not piling up into huge mountains because there’s no place to send them.
If the RCBC’s worst suspicions are true and the whole thing is just a delaying tactic, we’ll all know it on October 1, 1999.