As Tetra Pak launches a new range of food and drink packaging, Bernice Hurst examines the state of the packaging market and asks how friendly today’s packaging really is, both to the user and the environment.

There once was an advertising campaign based around the theme, “you’ve come a long way, baby”. Much the same can be said for Tetra Pak technology and packaging. From the original, difficult-to-open, brick-shaped boxes full of long life milk and fruit juice to the latest development, introduced in July 2004, the sizes, shapes and materials have undergone a development process in which the company rightly takes great pride.

The convenient sizes and shapes, the environmentally friendly materials and, most of all, the economic benefits offered by the current Tetra Pak range have made advocates of manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike. But are they really as good – and as popular – as their makers would have us believe?

There are two primary stumbling blocks to user-friendliness: difficulties in opening and pouring and unsuitability for heating. Consumers who remember the earliest boxes may also remember wrestling with corners that were allegedly designed to be simply torn or cut off but more frequently resulted in much wrestling and spillage. And unless the contents were all used at the same time, leftovers were exposed to the air and went off very quickly.

Humble beginnings

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Originally founded by Dr Ruben Rausing in Sweden in 1951, Tetra Pak now operates in more than 165 markets, producing some 85 billion packs per year. Since Dr Rausing’s initial eureka moment, designs have been improved to “use less material, increase energy efficiency and facilitate viable, self-sufficient recycling programs”.

Source reduction, reducing the amount of materials used in the manufacturing process, they insist means fewer materials which, in turn, means less environmental impact, lower manufacturing costs and less waste to dispose of at the end of the product’s lifecycle. Over the years, the material and energy needed to produce cartons has been reduced while simultaneously improving their performance. Today’s cartons are 20% lighter than they were 20 years ago, while still maintaining their strength. The ability to re-seal packs containing either liquid or dry ingredients has eliminated one of the earliest faults with the packaging.

Aseptic packaging prevents micro-organisms from entering products during and after the actual process by filling a sterilised package with sterile food. Thus even the most highly perishable contents can be distributed and stored for up to a year without refrigeration or preservatives.

Aseptic processing

Unlike canning, which generally requires 20 to 50 minutes of heating once the can has been filled, aseptically processed foods are sterilised first at ultra-high temperatures that rapidly heat, then cool, before packaging begins. Tetra Pak explains that “this flash-heating-and-cooling aseptic process substantially reduces the energy use and nutrient loss associated with conventional sterilisation. As a result, aseptically packaged products retain more nutritional value and exhibit more natural texture, colour and taste while saving energy in the process.” 

Cartons are comprised of a layered laminate made from paperboard, polyethylene and aluminium. The paper provides stiffness, strength and the shape; a polyethylene inner layer forms a seal to make the package liquid-tight while an outer layer keeps the package dry. An ultra-thin layer of aluminium foil is used to protect against light and oxygen.

Easy to transport, cheap to produce

“Unfilled cartons are stored in rolls so that a single lorry can transport half a million empty, one-quart Tetra Brik™ Aseptic cartons. More than 20 lorries would be needed for the same number of pre-formed packages, therefore gas and oil consumption,  vehicle emissions and wear and tear on roads are all reduced.”

Even food manufacturers who pride themselves on the purity and quality of their products have been converted to Tetra Paks as the material most compatible with their objectives. Richard Reed, responsible for marketing Innocent smoothies, says “putting our fresh fruit smoothies into cartons delivers a whole host of benefits to customers. Because the cartons are airtight and don’t let light in, they allow our all-natural fruit juices to last a bit longer in the fridge. The cartons are also cheaper to produce, which make Innocent smoothies more affordable as we pass on the saving to our drinkers.”

The cartons’ shape and stackability make them easier to ship and stack both in supermarket shelves and consumers’ kitchen cupboards. The fact that they are shatter proof and tamper proof has added to their popularity.

Opening sizes that enable smooth flowing are important for non-liquid products. Gable topped Tetra Rex cartons with a re-closable spout are used for dry snacks, cereals, beans, peas, cookies, soup mixes and even baking mixes. And while the aseptic packaging ensures that the carton is leakproof, gable packaging does the opposite by ensuring that no moisture affects its dry contents.
Liquids such as milk and juice in gable-top cartons are still protected from damage that might be caused by too much light in refrigerated cabinets by paperboard that blocks out light. 

Recart the last shout

The latest addition to the range, Tetra Recart, is American manufacturer Hormel’s choice for its chilli brands. Offering a production capacity similar to canning lines along with the benefits of ambient distribution and merchandising, Tetra Recart’s shape, and light weight, makes it easier to store and stack. A “new opening solution”, easy pouring and the facility to sterilise package and content simultaneously are cited as reasons why the new pack is an improvement on more traditional cans. It is also said to be 100% recyclable.

Although the company prides itself on the recyclable nature of its materials, this is somewhat more complicated than it appears. Special facilities are needed to separate mixed materials such as those which are used for tetra paks. Where facilities are available, cartons go through a process known as hydrapulping; the results can then be used for paper towels, toilet tissue, and writing paper.

How environmentally friendly is Tetra Pak?

There have also been disputes over the company’s loud proclamations that its sources are sustainable. According to Scotland’s Sunday Herald, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) forced Tetra Pak to withdraw from membership in March 2004 because of an unsubstantiated advertising campaign highlighting the sustainability of the trees from which its wood pulp is sourced.

But according to Tetra Pak UK’s environmental manager, Richard Hands, “We are moving towards Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) accreditation.” FSC is the only sustainable certification scheme acceptable to the WWF. “Our paper supply,” he added, “is a renewable resource from sustainably managed US and Canadian forests. Wood residuals (off-cuts and waste recovered after timber is cut) rather than whole trees are generally used to make pulp. In some paper mills, up to 90% of the pulp is produced from wood residuals.”

Which just leaves the problem of heating to overcome. Cartons contain a layer of foil so contents have to be transferred to a suitable pan or dish for heating. Where consumers are concerned, that one extra step may detract significantly from any boasts of “convenience”.

Then there’s just the washing up to contend with, but you never know. One day they may find a way around that little problem as well.