Circular dreams: Tetra Pak's quest for a resource revolution
With recent reports revealing the enormity of the plastic waste challenge, the need for business-led action has never been clearer. Here, edie reporter Matt Mace pays a visit to Tetra Pak's headquarters in Sweden, where the packaging company is embarking on an ambitious mission to drive a global circular economy.
Seven glass plaques shimmer in the Swedish sun, desperate to grab my attention. The awards are noticeable, but they are dwarfed by the much larger number of carton packages that climb from wall to wall like an illustrious trophy cabinet.
Mario Abreu has both hands wrapped around one of the cartons - a fruit juice carton from Brazil. He hands it to me, eager anticipation draped across his face. I half expect him to kiss the cap in plastic parody of his native country’s football captain Cafu when he lifted the World Cup for Brazil in 2002. Thankfully, Mario resists.
“A package should always save more than it costs," he explains. "It’s part of the way we look at our business." Mario's enthusiasm for the product is as clear as the liquid that he pours out of it. There’s an obvious reason that this room is adourned with so much packaging - for this business, the product is the prize.
The business is Tetra Pak, and Mario is leading me on a tour through the packaging company's headquarters in the beautiful and peaceful town of Lund, Sweden.
As Mario - TetraPak's vice-president - leads me along the equally peaceful ambiance of the company's conference halls, I'm unprepared for the Willy Wonka-esque experience awaiting me in the next room.
"Welcome to our Eco Discovery Room," Mario proclaims. The room is dark, lit up only by the glowing green silhouette of a glass tree standing in the centre of the room.
“We cannot bring you to the forest, but we can bring the forest to you,” Mario says as the lights turn on. The LED lights surrounding the glass tree switch to red as Mario points me towards a slit of glass in the far wall.
Mirrors and small pieces of bark are cleverly aligned to create the illusion a vast forest in the smallest of spaces. It's efficiency at is finest - a theme that Tetra Pak continuously aims to deploy. I'm told the bark comes from trees within a Northern Scandinavian forest, where Tetra Pak sources more than 50% of its paper for carton production - cartons that consist of 75% renewable resources.
The Eco Discovery Room is a visual representation of the goals and strategies that Tetra Pak embodies. Designed for tours and 'self-exploration', the room doesn’t just tell you about the companies footprints and initiatives, it vividly shows you them.
As we circle around the Eco Discovery Room, we pass some framed 'Tetra Rex' cartons. Mario gleefully reminds me that this is the world's first fully recyclable carton, which has just expanded into Norway following on from successful launches in Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Mario continues to walk and talk as we pass numerous NGO logos imprinted on the surrounding walls. The Forest Stewardship Council, the UN Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative – the latter of which Tetra Pak co-founded with BMW, Audi and Jaguar Landrover. Each logo is greeted with anecdotal quips from Mario. For him, these aren’t just badges of honour, they’re stories; examples of Tetra Pak's decorated history of sustainability.
Mario gestures me to observe another graphic on another wall - three world maps of differing sizes, each colour-coded with shades of red, blue, green and orange. “These maps are not the most scientific, but they serve a very important reminder of need to improve our recycling efforts," Mario says.
The maps are dated, one from 2002, one from 2010 and the other listed for 2020. Each map colour-codes different regions' recycling ability - not just recycling of Tetra Pak cartons, all forms of recycling.
“Where recycling is widely available, you get green stars, where it isn’t, you get a red star. "The aim for 2020 is to eradicate the red colours and make more green colours appear."
In a world of rising litter problems - where plastic looks sets to outnumber fish in our oceans - and off the back of a diminished circular economy package, Tetra Pak's ambition to drive a global circular economy is certainly ambitious. "We need to facilitate this growth via four important action areas," Mario adds. "These are consumer awareness, supporting infrastructure, creating recycling links and growing the market for recycled materials."
He uses this opportunity to hand me an individual roof tile from the wall next to him. On construction sites, this aesthetically mundane yet sturdy metal tile would be racked up with many others. In the Discovery room, it’s put proudly on display.
The tile is made from the extracted plastic polymer and aluminium from Tetra Pak cartons and is listed alongside pipes and filament as an example of how the recycled materials market is growing, especially in Brazil. It acts as a physical metaphor for what Tetra Pak cartons can be turned into. But to facilitate mass scale-production of products like this, the map that it sits alongside needs a colour change fast.
As we leave the Eco Discovery room, I quiz Mario on Tetra Pak’s desire to facilitate a global recycling movement, with my first thoughts falling to the UK - given a two star rating on Tetra Pak's map - and the infrastructure that is in place to deal with Tetra Pak recycling.
“Off the top of my head, I would say that around 60% of your country can recycle our cartons from curb-side collections," Mario says. "A further 25% can drop the cartons off at designated stores." He informs me that Tetra Pak is working with UK recycler Sonoco to ensure that all materials get extracted and sent for re-use in the UK.
“We have enough capacity to recycle everything we sell in the UK, but consumers need to be aware of this - the mill is desperately looking forward to receiving more material.”
There was a second company, based in Fife, that Tetra Pak had worked with. While that company had the right infrastructure in place, it wasn't receiving enough waste to maintain its business and has since closed down. This is one of the major obstacles for Tetra Pak and a major driver of its global circular economy plans.
“The main issue is creating the link between our customers and their consumers," Mario says. "We have a wealth of knowledge on recycling packages and, for the majority, the infrastructure is in place. We just need to raise an awareness of the matter.”
Tetra Pak has ‘cluster officers’ enrolled across a variety of regions to work with business customers to promote recycling. This has led to customers such as Nestle launching behavioural change campaigns in Malaysia and the Philippines, while Coca-Cola is working with people in Brazil.
Meanwhile, the company has installed Dairy Hubs - which familiarises farmers with modern and sustainable animal husbandry techniques - throughout developing regions, in another effort to help customers realise that they can help make a change.
“In some areas, it’s as much about teaching the companies as it is the consumers," admits Mario. "The companies need to understand that all we do is make the packaging, once we pass it onto them they can dress it how they want. It becomes their package and it really should be used to inform consumers about the availability and benefits of recycling.”
As my tour in Lund draws to a close, I ask Mario if he thinks it really is possible to drive widespread behavioural change within such a complex policy landscape, or if he thinks more assistance and action will be needed from other big businesses and policymakers.
A smirk appears on Mario's face. “I feel policymakers are interested in the situation and they want to promote and improve recycling," he says. "We keep a dialogue to ensure that what we are doing is being seen and noted.
“There are places where legislation helps by creating infrastructure and regulatory framework, but there are countries that have no proper legislation to support recycling - this is not just for packaging, this issue delves further to general waste and hazardous goods. Different countries are in different stages of evolution. We just try to engage with all of them and promote the circular economy message as much as possible."
Before I leave, Mario provides one final, resonating point. “As much as this is a unique situation, it’s also a very challenging one," he tells me. "We can’t grow consumer awareness too much if the infrastructure isn’t in place or vice versa - it's a catch-22. We’re trying to act accordingly to keep the balance, but ultimately we will need help.
“The goal is there and we are progressing towards it. The more we expand our actions in different markets, the more we learn and the more we can help.”