Recycling beverage cartons
In May 2022, Congress passed Republic Act (RA) 11898 to amend the law on solid waste management and make producers responsible over their products’ packaging waste. This was in response to the issue of what to do with products at the end of their life cycle. The law made manufacturers or producers, and not just consumers, also responsible for this.
RA 11898 “institutionalize[s] the extended producer responsibility mechanism as a practical approach to efficient waste management, focusing on waste reduction, recovery, and recycling, and the development of environment-friendly products.” The law requires “producers to be environmentally responsible throughout the life cycle of a product, especially its post-consumer or end-of-life stage.” It is in this context that I now raise the issue of producers’ seemingly limited capacity to locally recycle, particularly used beverage cartons or multi-layer “paper bottles.” Consumers are inclined to think that beverage cartons, being paper-based, are more friendly to the environment than plastic bottles. While this may be true, paper bottles are still not easy to recycle since they contain not only paper layers but also plastic and aluminum layers.
Given this, how can local producers effectively comply with the mandate of RA 11898 if they have limited capacity to undertake the local recovery, recycling, reuse, and proper disposal particularly of used beverage cartons? Locally, is there actually a way to make paper bottles even more environment-friendly in terms of both carbon footprint and recycling?
Studies indicate that paper bottles with plastic and aluminum layers take less energy to make than other beverage packaging. They are also light and space-efficient to transport because of their material and shape. And they can better store perishable items like milk, juices, soups, and sauces. Beverage cartons are thus great packaging, but they are difficult to recycle.
It is in this line that Plastic Action (PACT), in a paper, recommends the calibration of policies with respect to the use of beverage cartons or paper bottles. And the recommendation, particularly in Singapore, is to limit the use of beverage cartons only “to highly perishable food products.” This is given the fact that Singapore has no local recycling facility for used beverage cartons.
PACT was started by World Wildlife Fund-Singapore and is based on WWF’s No Plastic in Nature Initiative. According to WWF-Singapore, PACT is a business initiative that aims to reduce waste and move towards a circular economy. It pushes for science-based decisions for responsible production and consumption.
In what PACT refers to as a “Guidance Pack on Used Beverage Cartons” for Singapore, it said beverage cartons have “debatable recyclability,” and should thus be “reserved for highly perishable liquid foods that require the preservation of flavor and nutrient value, and benefits from a lengthened shelf-life.” For drinking water, plastic bottles could be retained, PACT said, noting that “plastics with recycled content would have a lower environmental footprint than beverage cartons.”
PACT added, “Beverage cartons should not be used as a replacement for drinking water plastic bottles, simply to accommodate consumers’ demand for plastic removal. The disposal of the beverage carton will also be a problem especially in Singapore’s waste management context.”
Moreover, “the intended design of the beverage carton would not contribute significantly to the shelf life of drinking water. Neither does drinking water require the preservation of flavors or nutrients.” In short, why use paper bottles for water when plastic will do just fine, for now.
PACT added, “Although beverage cartons are theoretically recyclable, their actual recyclability is debatable. This is because: Firstly, a beverage carton cannot be 100% recycled back to a new beverage carton. Secondly, the recovered materials from recycling are either downcycled or made into products that are unrecyclable. [And], although advances in recycling technology can improve the recyclability of beverage cartons, there are very few facilities with such advanced technology, raising the question of the term ‘recyclable’ from a country’s waste management context.”
PACT noted that Singapore does not have its own recycling facility for used beverage cartons, and the nearest one is in neighboring Selangor, Malaysia. But the Malaysian facility “is only able to recover paper [from used beverage cartons], while the remaining plastic and aluminum are downcycled into a composite material (a material that is made from at least two very different materials).”
I believe the Philippines can take the lead of PACT on this given the country’s limited capacity to undertake the recycling of used beverage cartons. I know only of Nestlé Philippines, Tetra Pak Philippines, Green Antz Builders, and JunkNot collecting used beverage cartons and repurposing them into durable materials for making tables and chairs.
While other producers are also getting into recycling, capacity is still limited. In this sense, if more local and imported products come in paper bottles or beverage cartons, just so to save on freight and limit plastic use, then much of their discarded packaging will still end up in landfills. Consumers also need to do their part in collecting, cleaning, and turning over their used cartons.
My concern is not so much the recyclability of beverage cartons but the Philippine capacity to do so. With proper facilities in place, paper bottles can in fact be recycled, with the paper, plastic, and aluminum content separated. But, until more facilities or more producers collect and recycle discarded cartons, we need to consider alternatives.
My call is that importers and local producers, in determining packaging for their products, should steer clear of materials that cannot be commercially recycled, reused, or repurposed. Meantime, they should also consider investing in facilities that can locally recycle, reuse, or repurpose the very packaging materials they produce.
While the priority is for producers to always use fully reusable packaging, this is easier said than done. An option, particularly for beverage makers, is to use recycled PET, or at least collect and recycle most of their PET or plastic bottle. As for those using beverage cartons or paper bottles, they need to initiate more programs to collect and recycle their used packaging products.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council