Tetra Pak is everywhere and getting greener by the day
Those little rectangular juice boxes that seem to be everywhere have a name. They are Tetra Pak cartons, and they are also used for milk and other perishable food products.
The company making them was founded in Lund, Sweden in 1943 and is now headquartered in Pully, Switzerland. Tetra Pak, the world's largest food packaging company, is privately owned.
It has revolutionized the food and beverage industry with paper-based, aseptic cartons that can store liquids for months without refrigeration.
Aseptic carton packaging goes through a process in which microorganisms are prevented from entering a package. It is typically 70 percent paper, 24 percent polyethylene and six percent aluminum.
The packaging can be difficult to recycle and is often processed through a completely separate channel, but the company argues that overall it is better. And technology could improve the recycling process.
"Aseptic packaging requires less energy to be maintained because you don't need refrigerators," which release carbon dioxide through refrigerants, said Alejandro Cabal, Tetra Pak Korea Managing Director, during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Jan. 27. "They're also easily disposed. You empty the product, fold it and throw it out. It is more efficient when compared to packaging alternatives."
Recycled aseptic cartons can be turned into tissues, toilet paper and paper towels. Some of these products recycled from Tetra Pak's aseptic cartons are sold online in Korea, though the amount "is still very small."
"I think generally in Asia, sustainability has not been at the top of the agenda, even in Korea, which is a very advanced economy," Colombia-born Cabal added. But "knowing the wave in Korea in which it adopts technology and adopts initiative, it will go very fast to match the European standards."
Below are the edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. It's been more than six decades since Tetra Pak introduced aseptic packaging. What technologies is the company working on in Korea to stay competitive yet sustainable?
A. Examples of some things that we are working on with Korean customers is the adoption of hyper speed technology. We moved from machines that run 3,000 packs per hour to now 40,000 packs per hour. This is much better because it uses similar footprint but duplicates production. It is better for the environment because we have less consumables and more outputs in the same hour. This is one technology we are certainly aiming for.
Next is new materials. Plant-based caps made of sugar cane and changing our aseptic packaging layers from fossil-based like aluminum and polymers to plant based, like wood fibers, is what we want to introduce to the Korean market in the next 12-24 months.
As for packaging recycling, we see the future where we can use a barcode to trace a product back to the tree. And where the paper bin opens only by reading the code. We hope for a food industry that is connected from cow and tree to disposal into a paper bin. It is a technology being developed. It needs a lot of investment and infrastructure.
The global ESG movement has raised food and beverage industry's interest in using eco-friendly packaging. As a company that opened a Seoul office in 1983, what do you think about Korean companies and sustainability?
I believe there has been a dramatic change. In 2015, one in 10 CEOs declared sustainability is one of their three priorities. If you ask today, it is eight out of 10.
Starting with government, the Ministry of Environment in Korea is making quite an effort to change the collection and recycling. Legislators are really making sure that the society, customers, and everyone else understands the importance of sustainability.
Customers have also come to realize how serious the global problem is. In the past, it was the government who told them they needed to collect and recycle. Now, the consumers are asking their governments to help them recycle.
As for recycling, the situation in Korea is very peculiar because there are eight recyclers in Korea and all of them have different technologies for recycling. If we want to make it easier for the recyclers to do their job, the best way is to separate the recycling of aseptic packages and chilled packages, which is how Korea is doing now. But in the future, when a technology is developed to separate aluminum from the aseptic packaging, then it can be collected together with chilled packages. We believe recycling aseptic and chilled packages together is the future to raise their recycling rate.
The aseptic carton recycling rate is at 6 percent in Korea. We plan to move it up to minimum 30 percent by 2025 and minimum 70 percent by 2030.
How far do you think Korea's food and beverage industry has come in terms of sustainability?
I would say Korea is in an intermediate state of shifting towards sustainability. It is not as advanced as western Europe, but it is not behind like eastern Europe. But I believe that Korea, knowing the way how Korea adopts technology and new things, it will go very fast to European standards. Because Korea is a lighthouse of technology and innovation, it cannot lag in sustainability. So I think it will go very fast. What I see from the customers, the legislators and organizations, is that there is a huge interest to step up.
How has Covid-19 affected Tetra Pak's output level of aseptic packaging?
The growth of aseptic cartons has been accelerated by Covid-19. Output level for Tetra Pak Korea's packaging rose 7 percent on year to 2.27 billion packages in 2021. The estimated packaging output in 2022 is 2.4 billion.
There are two triggers to the increase. One was lockdowns during the Covid-19, which encouraged people to shop on e-commerce. We are perfectly suitable for e-commerce because our products are consumer goods and are also easy to transport due to the light weight. The second thing is that consumer demand to stock food products at home in case of emergency due to Covid-19 and logistics system that collapsed by the pandemic.
Now 43 percent of current sales in Korea go through e-commerce, and it was half of that three years ago. This year, we only grew 6 percent in the e-commerce channel because there were no big lockdowns. But we have been growing double digits in the past 4 years.
Most products that are packed in aseptic packaging are related to dairy products like milk or whipping cream. What kinds of food and beverage categories is Tetra Pak investing in for aseptic packaging?
One is cheese. Cheese is one of our fastest growing categories, like spreadable cheese. Such cheese can be made into liquid or semi-liquid which will be much easier to squeeze and use. Also, packaging for a full block of cheese is growing dramatically. Cheese is a fantastic category that we are investing in.
The second is readymade soups, which is also growing very fast. We are really investing in technology to improve the taste of the products such as soups or cheese that uses our packaging. Like when we come to aseptic cheese, people are more used to the image of cheese being fresh, so we need to work a lot with this technology to make sure that the product our customers produce is equal to the benchmark at the minimum.
Neither of the products are yet marketed in Korea.
BY JIN MIN-JI [email@example.com]