Exclusive: How Tetra Pak is helping to turn the tide on plastics

Tetra Pak ups the ante by approaching the challenge posed by plastics with a progressive mindset. Erik Lindroth, Sustainability Director, explains how

Blue Planet II won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Created using 6,000 hours of footage collected from 125 expeditions in 39 countries across a four-year period, the subsequent six-episode, 364-minute on-screen series that was shown to millions of viewers around the world can only be described as one of the most immersive, eye-opening nature documentaries ever made.

And while the second chapter of the production captured the beauty of the natural world through different aquatic lenses, the focus of its legacy has been significantly more topical than its predecessor.

“Sir David Attenborough and the BBC really helped to bring key issues surrounding global plastic pollution to the fore of public consciousness with Blue Planet II,” explains Erik Lindroth. “It really helped to visualise the plastic problem in a concrete, emotional, visceral way, and people understandably became upset when they realised the reality of the situation.

“But it wasn’t necessarily news at the time of release. Plastic elements ending up where they absolutely should not be has been a concern for many years.”

Lindroth himself became particularly engaged with the subject back in 2006 and 2007 while working in the commercial and marketing department of multinational food packaging company Tetra Pak. Now standing as the organisation’s Sustainability Director for Europe & Central Asia, 2019 marks his jubilee year at the firm.

“I’ve been with Tetra Pak for 25 years this year,” he affirms. “It’s a bit of a shock to hear myself say that out loud – time really does fly when you’re having fun. I joined the sustainability team a little over a decade ago and have been encouraging the business to take a wider perspective by engaging with sustainability from a commercial angle ever since.

“Today, sustainability is a pivotal question when we consider the future of our company and the future of our portfolio. It’s attracting huge portions of our research and development budgets, and for very good reason.”

The right kind of responsibility

Indeed, Tetra Pak’s emphasis on operating responsibly, particularly in relation to plastics, is most recently cited in the business’s 21st Sustainability Report.

Published on World Environment Day (June 5, 2019), the latest review highlights numerous global initiatives underway across the group, from commitments made to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy to recycling programmes launched in partnership with companies like Veolia.

“We’re also investing €80 million towards the development of paper straws and tethered caps,” Lindroth adds, outlining that €30 million will be attributed to the former and the remaining €50 million to the latter.

In the eyes of the Sustainability Director, however, eliminating plastics completely is not the best solution.

“Plastic is not a yes or no answer,” he explains. “It’s very easy to make it a black or white question, when the answer in never going to be black or white in reality.

“Plastic is popular for a reason – it’s not just plastic for the sake of plastic, it’s so widely used because it delivers a service. It’s crucial in upholding global food safety, for example, ensuring products are safe to eat for billions of people around the world.

“Rather than replacing plastic altogether, the challenge that we have is reducing the amount of plastic that we use and changing the types of plastic that we’re using.”

This latter point forms the basis of a major part of Tetra Pak’s current sustainability strategy. Alongside introducing plastic alternatives such as paper straws to its range, the company has equally been using more environmentally advantageous plastics, namely plant-based solutions.

Lindroth continues: “Tetra Pak was the first packaging company in the world to begin using plant-based plastics at scale and remains the largest user of plant-based plastics in the world right now. In essence, this helps us to also move away from the fossil economy, reduce our carbon footprint and contribute in a positive manner towards the UN’s global ambitions to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

The next step

For Tetra Pak, this circular approach will underpin its strategy in the long term.

Pointing to positive steps being taken in the Nordic region through a respect for nature and general sense of stewardship, alongside progressive steps being taken in the UK’s retail environment, Lindroth explains why.

“The circular economy of plastics needs to be treated in the same way as a lifecycle,” he reveals.

“We need to ensure less plastics and more plant-based plastics are placed into the market to begin with; that the impact of these products is reduced during their life cycle, and that they are recycled and disposed of in a responsible manner at the end of their life.”

Advocating that more attention needs to be paid to the production of plastics as much as recycling efforts, Lindroth ends on a relatively optimistic note as our conversation comes to a close.

“I think the direction that we have to move in as a society is clear, while the expectations on businesses are also clear,” he states. “People want politicians to take bolder decisions, but it doesn’t escape the fact that the biggest force of change often comes from industry.

“Looping back to where our discussion started, I think if we therefore showcase the value that sustainability provides to CEOs and business stakeholders, we will increase the appetite for industries to really step forward and drive change.

“If we can catalyse that in the right way, I’m convinced the sustainable development goals will be met, not just on waste management but across the spectrum.”