Juicing the Waste Stream

Aseptic Packages are Convenient, but Hard to Recycle

If there’s juice in your child’s school backpack, it’s more than likely that it’s stored in a paper-and-foil aseptic package, complete with a colorful cartoon logo. Although aseptic packaging was invented to safely ship foods without refrigeration—a feature that has helped feed many people in the developing world—it is more familiarly used in the U.S. for convenience drinks. And while some environmentalists applaud the merits of aseptics, a number of important questions remain.

© Brian Howard

The first tenet of the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra is that if we produce less waste to begin with, we’ve already won part of the garbage battle. Aseptic boxes were conceived, in part, to fit this bill. They are about 96 percent beverage to four percent packaging by weight, which is lower than glass or aluminum cans, according to the Aseptic Packaging Council (APC). The boxes are filled in a sterile environment through a process that uses less energy than traditional canning, preserves many food nutrients and requires few to no preservatives. As Sue Becker, vice president of Eden Foods, puts it, "Aseptics really protect the integrity of food."

Most aseptic packages are made up of 70 percent paper, 24 percent polyethylene and six percent aluminum. Given the container’s low volume and rectangular shape, according to APC, product can be transported more efficiently than in cans and bottles. Unlike cans, there are no sharp edges, and the boxes collapse to a small size. Since no refrigeration is needed, energy is conserved compared with storing and shipping fresh foods packaged some other ways. Aseptic packages have also proven invaluable in areas where water quality is so poor that rehydrating dry foods would be dangerous.

A Recycling Challenge

As a multi-material product, aseptic boxes are relatively hard to recycle, says John Davis, president of California Resource Recovery Association. Only the relatively few recycling facilities that practice "hydrapulping" (the process used on polyethylene-coated paper, as found in milk cartons and frozen food paperboard) can handle aseptic containers. According to Davis, "There are no hydrapulping facilities in California. Some source-separated aseptic packaging may be shipped overseas or east for recycling." Spokesperson Michael Fraser of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation adds, "New York State doesn’t have an aseptic recycling program. What to recycle is decided at a local level, and with aseptics this is done on a limited basis."

The APC claims that more than 12 million U.S. households have access to curbside programs that recycle aseptics, though the actual recycling rates for the containers are quite low. Since this type of packaging is such a small part of the waste stream (between .03 and .1 percent of the total), most recycling programs simply ignore it, says Davis, although no exact recovery numbers are currently available.

APC Executive Vice President Erich Parker would like to see more communities offer aseptic package recycling, although he admits it’s often an uphill battle. "Cities want to recycle materials that are of such quantities in the waste stream that they can make money," he says. George MacDonald, who runs Maine’s waste management and recycling program, takes issue with that line of thinking. "Do they want consumers to continue buying convenience products to promote recycling?" he asks. "I"m missing something there." Another problem, according to Julie Daniel, executive director of BRING Recycling in Oregon, is that some recycling mills that accept aseptic packages consider the aluminum a contaminant in the milk carton stream, and limit the percentage of aseptics they"ll accept.

The recycleability of the technology has been so contentious that aseptic packages were even banned in Maine for a few years. Now seven of 493 Maine communities have recycling programs that accept the material.

Widespread Use

Though some environmentalists say that single-use drink containers promote a throwaway mentality, the aseptic packaging industry argues that its product is used for more than just children’s juices. Other products and bulk foods are stored in the packages, from liquid eggs to chopped tomatoes, syrups and concentrates. Even though the jury remains out, many natural food producers have switched to aseptics.

Since soy products are more sensitive than cow’s milk, the container has been a real boon to the soy milk industry. "Cowless" milk brands include Imagine Foods, which makes Soy Dream and Rice Dream ($1.99 for 32 ounces), and Eden Foods, which sells soy, rice and oat milk ($2.19 for 32 ounces). Almond milk from Blue Diamond Grower’s Coop is especially tasty ($1.79 for 32 ounces). Imagine also makes creamy soups that, at $2.99 for 32 ounces, are generally cheaper than canned non-concentrated soups. Broths are also available in vegetable, no-chicken and chicken flavors ($2.79 for 32 ounces). Pacific Foods also packages broths in aseptic boxes ($2.89 for 32 ounces).

The creamer substitute Créme de la Soy comes in original, amaretto and French vanilla ($2.59 for 12 ounces) as well as a single-serve Café coffee drink ($1.79 for 10 ounces). Swiss Deliss makes iced tea in cranberry, lemon and peach flavors ($1.99 for 32 ounces), and Oregon Chai offers original, green tea, cocoa and caffeine-free varieties ($3.99 for 32 ounces concentrate). Some athletes chose sport drinks in aseptic packaging, like Imagine Foods" Power Dream ($1.39 for 11 ounces), because they are extremely lightweight and durable.

Mori-Nu claims its food products ($1.19 to $1.59 for 12 ounces and $1.49 for 11 ounces) are "never exposed to light, air or bacteria. Tofu and creamy soups are made right in the aseptic box after it has been sealed, which means full nutrient retention."

STARRE VARTAN is a freelance writer based in Norwalk, CT; Freelancer ORNA IZAKSON lives in Eugene, OR.