Plastic and paper cleavage


There’s an ongoing debate, it seems, about whether Tetra Paks are recyclable. Although most municipal recycling depots insist they are (personally, I’m not sure how the plastic-coated cardboard gets separated from the inner foil lining, but I’ll suspend my disbelief for the time being), what I’m wondering is: What happens to all of those Tetra Paks that come with hard plastic screw-caps on top? Most juice boxes are made from a single material, but wine cartons have what look to be #5 polypropylene caps, presumably to keep them fresher and make pouring easier.

Now, because I’m kind of a recycling nerd, I take the time to find my pair of scissors and cut these things off before rinsing the empty carton and tossing it into the blue bin. I do the same with milk cartons that have this because, again, I don’t see how a paper-based material could ever be properly recycled with plastic attached to it. I even make sure to separate my #5 yogurt containers from their #6 (I think) lids, and harass my parents on a regular basis about detaching plastic handles from paper bags and shoelace drawstring handles from plastic bags (thank-you, GAP) before putting them in their proper disposal unit.

Recently, the city of Toronto began talking about ways to discourage people’s use of disposable coffee cups; apparently, while it is possible to recycle the paper cup, this can’t be done when the plastic lid is attached — this is a big problem at the sorting plant.

So is my anxiety over decapitating every single Tetra Pak of wine, every Ceres juice box, every milk carton and yogurt container justified? Should the government be forcing manufacturers to start offering products in single-material packages? Or do most things get recycled, regardless of whether they’re clean or dirty, separate or joined together? And is there anyone besides me who can be found stabbing juice boxes with a pair of scissors every Tuesday morning before the recycling trucks come?

25 Responses to Plastic and paper cleavage

  1. Kim says:

    I do it too, though I’ve been told that is as unnecessary as rinsing things (which I still also do anyway) because the machines are capable of sorting and burning that stuff off. While I believe this about food residue, I have a hard time convincing myself in terms of those plastic caps. So I cut them out and dispose of them separately. Also, we’re told to recycle this stuff with the mixed paper here (in Alaska)…although we don’t have much curb side recycling, we have to gather and separate our own recycling, then take it to the center at deposit it into the appropriate bins all on our own.

    One of the local waste management companies recently started offering curb-side, but it’s in very limited neighborhoods, and there are things they don’t pick up that you still have to take yourself.

  2. lloyd alter says:

    Read Ruben Anderson in the Tyee:

    While looking for wine in refilled bottles I had the misfortune to see one of those shrill displays of wine in Tetra Paks; this crap is being flogged as a “Green
    Solution.” It’s junk like this that drives me to the liquor store in the first place. Tetra Paks are here to save us because they weigh less, so less climate-changing diesel fuel is required to lug them across the ocean from Australia. Dear God, where to start?

    First, even if you can get the drunkards off their lazy asses to join the mere quarter of the North American population that recycles, few places recycle Tetra Paks. Second, the places that say they recycle Tetra Paks are liars. What does “re” mean? It means again. Can a Tetra Pak be made into another Tetra Pak? No. Tetra Paks are seven incomprehensibly thin layers of paper, plastic and aluminum. The poor suckers who try to recycle them use giant blenders to mush the paper pulp off the plastic and metal, then they need to separate the plastic from the metal. What idiot thought this would be a better idea than washing a bottle and refilling it?

  3. First, thank you to Lloyd for clearing up the Tetra Pak conundrum (that is not a snark, but a serious comment). 7 layers? Egad! Secondly, I was impressed by this ( co-mingled recycling video, but agree that the mixed component products are questionable. I’ve been trying to cut them out at our house…

    Also — I’ve got a question. We get local milk delivered in a glass jug. The jug has a plastic lid, which is #4 and theoretically recyclable, although our commingled recycling plan (accepts #1 thru #7) tells us NOT to put in lids of any sort. And so, I am wondering what happened to paper lids on glass milk jugs — I am only 31 and I remember distinctly — that milk jugs used to have paper lids. What gives?

  4. Willo says:

    Ok, here is my question, what about rice and soy milk cartons?

    They seem similar, but they have no recycle symbol that I can find.

  5. Tetra packs are NOT recyclable in my area, and neither are any bottle caps of any kind. I too have a hard time imagining that tetra packs are some how more ecologically friendly than say, a glass bottle – especially if the glass bottle is filled with wine from a local winery.

  6. Meghan says:

    I’ve been wondering about that too. I buy my coconut water in tetra packs (now in litre sizes) but have wondered about that. I always put it in the blue box and hope the recycling fairies make good. I recently found a little market in china town that sells easy to hack open coconuts but still not quite as easy as snipping the corner of a tetra pack.

  7. Dahlia says:

    From what I understand TetraPak is a recyclable material, just like plastic… in theory: it can be recycled, but there are few recyclers out there. There is an american company that recycles TetraPaks into a fake wood material, but it would seem that the stuff usually goes the way of alot of the plastics we think we’re sending off to be recycled: the dump.
    Kudos to you Vanessa for actually cutting out the different bits of plastics and paper! Recycling programmes in Japan requires such actions from citizens, and I think every community should too. In France, each neighbourhood has recycling centres where one must sort glass by colour…
    There is currently a crisis in the recycling industry because no one wants to buy the material unless it is guaranteed free from foreign stuff (paper mixed with plastic or vice versa). We should be sorting our recyclables instead of jumbling them all together in one blue box.

  8. JP says:

    Don’t forget that in Ontario you can bring your wine tetras back to the beer store for recycling and collect a deposit! I’m unclear on whether there’s a difference in recycling method between that and the blue bin though.

  9. Lill Hawkins says:

    Oh golly! Now I don’t feel so foolish for cutting off the little metal collars on wine bottles.

    But – beyond recycling tetra paks – I shy away from them because I don’t like the materials they’re made from against my food and drink. I’m trying to get away from plastic as much as possible.

    I wish someone would offer yogurt in glass jars. I think it’s so odd to see organic yogurt in plastic containers. It just doesn’t seem right to me. I could make my own, I suppose, like I have in the past, but I can’t do everything from scratch unless I stop working. I already home school and spend several hours a day on freelance writing.

    Does anyone know if tetra paks have BPA in them? I’m trying to remove it from my life, but just found out that Zevia soda has it in their cans, although they assure me that it’s under 2,000 percent of what the FDA deems permissable. Why doesn’t that reassure me?

    Shine On,

  10. Cathy says:

    I know that this doesn’t completely resolve the recyclability of the tetra package debate, but here is some exciting news about recycling #5 plastics and lids (from Tetra packs or otherwise):

    1. The company “Preserve” now accepts any #5 plastics, including Brita filters, and recycles them to make their own product line of recycled items. Check out the program here, and how/where to drop off #5s:

    2. Aveda accepts all rigid polypropylene plastic caps/lids, sometimes noted with a 5 for recycling into “new” packaging for their products. For more info check this out:

    I hope that this information helps!

  11. HoorayParade says:


    I have seen Bulgarian yogurt in glass jars. I’ve never had any before but I do know it exists.

  12. I too have heard that Tetra Paks are very hard to recycle, and I don’t consider mushing them up and turning them into decking material to be recycling. It’s “downcycling.” I’d rather stick with glass and simply consume less.

    Lill, Tetra Paks do not contain BPA. The plastic is polyethylene.

    Yogurt is very easy to make using a Thermos:

  13. teri says:

    @Green Me Alison – I’m surprised the dairy doesn’t take back your glass jars and re-use them. Where we live, there’s a somewhat local (industrial, non-organic) dairy that sells in local stores in glass jugs – we’ve had their milk a few times – they take the jugs back and clean and re-fill them. Though we elected to keep ours – they make great storage containers for rice, dried peas and beans, etc, and are also good for holding cold teas and such in the summer. Maybe you could make use of yours in this way, if your local dairy doesn’t re-use their jugs?

    @Lill Hawkins (and anyone else who is interested) – Of all the things I make from scratch, yogurt by far is the least time-consuming. I’ll often do the heating and cooling and adding culture (yogurt) just before bed, then let it become yogurt overnight while i’m sleeping – in the morning all I have to do is put it in the fridge (or for those of you without one – in the cool/cold room). I don’t use any special equipment or cultures – I use mason (canning) jars for containers, and follow the recipe from No Impact Man’s blog – – it’s super easy, and it’s worked every time.

  14. okmosa says:

    I found this video

    In St. Paul, our directions are to ‘remove the lid, rinse clean & flatten.’

  15. Emma says:

    I’ve struggled with all my Tetrapaks. Cutting them apart, reusing them, stripping them layer-by-layer, trying to eat and digest them…nothing works.
    But then I remembered the millions of juice-boxes out there…aren’t they the same packaging? They’ve always been recycled properly haven’t they? It’s still better than a bottle right?

    maybe I’ll go check those links out. Either way: Tetrapak = more wine. More wine = less packaging. Less packaging = happier Thistle.

  16. Olga says:

    I cut the plastic caps of my milk cartons too, it just doesn’t seem right to put them together in the same recycle bin. Maybe they’ll be burned off during paper recycling, but I don’t think I want anything extra to be burned off and released into the air. I also wash all my plastic and glass recyclables. Since we don’t have a curbside pickup, it might end up sitting in the house for a month or so. I don’t want to have a bug problem.

  17. Condo Blues says:

    I haven’t had wine in Tetrapaks and after this discussion I’m going to stick with wine in a bottle. I can always find a good reuse for a wine bottle and cork besides putting the bottle in my recycling bin.

  18. JP says:

    Waste and recycling concerns are important but don’t forget the energy and GHG implications of your decision. Sticking with wine in a heavy glass probably has a lot more embedded energy and climate concerns than a Tetrapak.

  19. Lara S. says:

    I consider wine as just another form of bottled water. I think it should be consumed only once in a while, in special occasions. I think the energy put in production, transport and disposal of wine bottles OR tetrapaks are not justified by the habit of drinking it or the health benefits it may have. Just like milk: I can have the same benefits with just a little cheese than I get drinking a big amount of milk, and with much less pakaging, too (dairies have to be kept cold during the whole transportation process, so it’s even worse for the environment). Cheese is like milk, only concentrated! I used to buy dry milk (the powder kind) but I don’t know for sure how much energy it takes to dry it compared to the energy to transport it cold (sounds better to me though, since you also save packaging materials).

    I think it’s good that you separate the plastic lids from the tetrapak, but it’d be a lot better if you just didn’t buy them at all.
    I only buy tetrapaks when I buy mashed tomatoes, because it’s cheaper than the can and it has no BPA but in Argentina it’s almost impossible to recycle these kind of things.

  20. pat says:

    Oh lordy, lordy, what would the world be without wine?? I dont drink it for the health benefits or out of habit. It’s just that food wouldnt taste the same without it and life would just be so miserable. Of course, if we go with the ‘more concentrated is good’ hypothesis then I guess that we could drink port and sherry and brandy instead but that would ruin everything. We would be too drunk to care about the food. Lets go back to old fashioned bottles. Thank goodness I have a massive recycling box!

  21. Emma says:

    Obviously Ms. “wine is another form of bottled water” just needs a drink 🙂 And a stiff one at that! Bottled or Tetra’d, we’re all making an effort here. It’s better than wine a la styrofoam. yeesh. The time it takes to cut apart a tetrapak won’t amount to how much paper was thrown into the garbage today at my office. I don’t agree with it, but everyone here is getting too nit-picky. But on the bright side: if wine IS equivalent to bottled water…hmm…8 glasses a day was it? …Right on track….jskdhfjksdfhhjs

  22. Lara S. says:

    LOL you’re right, of course… Reading too much “green” information can raise my brain’s temperature in a way that increases global warming!!!!!!!!

    PS. I love being drunk too (:

  23. Oh, thanks very much for posting this! It is going to aid me when I get Coconut Milk at the store! Very Marvelous!

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