Drink-Box Makers Try Recycling

Pilot projects in five US states and Canada test viability of reprocessing the containers. BUSINESS AND ENVIRONMENT

THE aseptic drink box is in a squeeze. The containers are lightweight and can store liquids for long periods without refrigeration. These qualities helped it win praise from the Institute of Food Technologists as ``the most significant food science innovation of the last 50 years,'' beating other innovations such as frozen juice concentrate, safe canning techniques, and microwave ovens. Environmentalists, however, complain that the eight-ounce boxes - made of paper, plastic, and aluminum - are not recyclable. More than 4 billion boxes were consumed and discarded last year.

A 1989 Maine law bans the drink box and other non-recyclables from supermarket shelves. Environmentalists contend that disposal costs outweighs the benefits of the pack's three-layer design. Until now, no one has found a way to separate and recycle the mixed materials.

Last month, the aseptic packaging industry began trying to work out of that squeeze, opening pilot recycling programs for drink boxes in six locations in North America.

``We want to put to bed the myth that it cannot be recycled,'' says Ed Klein, president of the Aseptic Packaging Council council in Washington, D.C., which is supported by the only United States manufacturers, Tetra-Pak and Combi-Bloc.

The pilot program will determine whether or not it is economically profitable to recycle the drink boxes. In California, one recycling plant is paying a collection agency $120 a ton for shredded and cleaned used drink boxes and milk cartons. The recycled product sells for $400 a ton.

The pack is popular in Europe and Japan; it provides milk to people in developing countries where refrigeration is scarce. In Germany, some boxes are being recycled into plastic lumber products. But the container is relatively new to the US, introduced in the early 1980s. Mr. Klein says the industry has not had opportunity to develop recycling the way makers of glass and aluminum containers have. So the council is now sponsoring recycling programs in tandem with supermarkets in five US states and Canada.

Here in Boston, Bread & Circus supermarkets accept for return used, rinsed, and flattened drink boxes. These are transported to a recycling plant in Long Island.

The boxes are 70 percent paper, 23 percent low-density polyethylene (LDP) and 7 percent aluminum. In the recycling process, the mix goes through a hydrapulper.

``It's just like a large blender,'' Klein says. ``You put a lot of packs in, with a lot of water. Turn the blender on; the paper becomes a pulp and drops to the bottom, and the plastic is screened off in a different direction.'' Milk cartons can be added to the blend, to help create economies of scale; they are made of the same paper and LDP plastic found in drink boxes.

The mix can then be made into paper (tissue and paperboard) or plastic lumber (used outdoors in structures like boat docks and porches). For now, plastic lumber is produced only in the Northeast; the other locations are sending the plastic-aluminum mix to landfills.

But not everyone is convinced by the efforts. Jeanne Wirka, policy analyst at Environmental Action, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, says the recycling system for aseptic drink boxes doesn't make economic sense. Ms. Wirka objects to the manufacture of plastic lumber, which she says is a low-value mix of resins that would be worth more if they were separated. At a cost of ``3 to 5 percent more than wood,'' it is hard to market the plastic lumber, she adds.

But Klein, formerly with the Environmental Protection Agency, argues in favor of plastic lumber. It is much safer, he says, than pressure-treated lumber, which contains toxic chemicals like inorganic arsenic and creosote that are designed to repel bugs and pests.

The recycling issue aside, the containers have environmental advantages:

Savings in energy: Contents do not require refrigeration. Lightweight boxes are less costly than glass to transport.

Efficient shape: Square boxes stack more tightly than round containers, taking less space.

Less Packaging: A drink box is 97 percent beverage, and 4 percent packaging, measured by weight. Glass bottles deliver about 70 percent product, and 30 percent packaging.

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