Partner: Coop Denmark
In collaboration with COOP, the project dealt with the sustainability challenges of laminated food packaging, that is ending up in the Danish incineration plants. The project addressed the size of the problem through methods: life cycle comparisons, in-depth desk research, interviews with the involved actors: consumers, Copenhagen and Fredericia municipality employees and partners from COOP. Design games were used as a framework for co-design and engage ing actors in the early stages of the design process.
The analysis and development process resulted in the creating “public hot cause” concept, where the project’s findings were used in Danish Samvirke magazine as a June 2020 cover story.
1 billion cartons are sent for incineration every year in Denmark
Take a deep look at the trash can. If you drink as much milk and eat as much yoghurt as the average, you throw out a little more than 4 cartons a week. In one year, it becomes just over 200 cartons – or a total of 5.8 kilos of packaging, which only comes from cartons used for milk, yoghurt and other dairy products.
In Denmark, in 97 out of the country’s 98 municipalities, it is “forbidden” to throw the laminated cartons for recycling. Instead, they must be thrown away with the residual waste, which ends up in the incineration plant and becomes energy
It is not only milk, yoghurt and cream that come in cartons that could be recycled. Juice, beans, sauces and peeled tomatoes in carton packaging are also on the supermarket shelves. For a single Dane, it ends up with a total of 6 kilos of cartons a year – which is 5 percent of the total amount of packaging waste. If you collect all the Danes’ cardboard packaging, you end up with 34,000 tonnes.
Roughly speaking, with an optimal effort, you can collect and recycle between 35 and 40 per cent of all the cartons that come on the market in Denmark. This will mean that we can recycle around 15,000 tonnes of carton packaging.
In Fredericia, the only municipality to collect milk cartons
Denmark does not collect laminated cartons today and there are several reasons. One of them goes back to the 1970s to find where one began to incinerate waste instead of building large landfills in nature. With combustion, heat could be used for energy for electricity and heat production.
Other European countries for years – some for more than 20 years – have recycled, among other things, milk cartons. In some European countries, over 70 per cent of milk cartons are recycled. The average for the EU is 48 per cent recycling of cartons, in Denmark, the recycling rate is below 1.
The low recycling rate is due to the fact that in Denmark only Fredericia Municipality collects milk cartons and other cartons that have been used for food. The municipality has been collecting the cartons for 10 years and is known for being one of Denmark’s best at recycling waste.
In Fredericia, the citizens have for more than 20 years sorted the household waste into lots of fractions. The sorted waste ends up in clear sacks, which the people of the municipality pick up at home by the curb at regular intervals. Cartons from milk and juice end up in a separate bag.
The cartons are sorted roughly and shipped to Germany
After the cartons have been picked up, they are taken to the municipality’s recycling centre, where all waste is sorted roughly, so that it is ensured that only carton packaging is collected before the cartons are pressed into large bales. The cartons are transported to a recycling plant in Germany that specializes in separating and recycling the materials.
In Sweden, there is a large plant where you can recycle milk cartons
In Sweden, the municipalities are already underway. Every day, a large number of trucks roll into Fiskeby, a recycling plant near Norrköping in Sweden. On the barn are bales of pressed cartons from milk, juice, tomatoes, even pizza trays are hidden in the meter-sized blocks of cardboard. The cardboard is poured into a large vessel on the plant, wherein a complicated process the cardboard is slowly dissolved and separated from the foil in the carton, which usually ensures that, for example, the milk stays inside the carton and does not leak out. When the process is over, Fiskeby has long, fine cellulose fibres that can be used in new cardboard packaging. A typical milk carton weighs 29 grams, of which 21 grams are carton and 8 grams is plastic.
The fibers in milk cartons are brand new and very attractive to paper mills
When it comes to recycling materials today, it especially makes sense to recycle the materials that are of particularly good quality. As the requirements for food safety are high, many food packaging today is produced from new wood fibres – this also applies to milk cartons and other cartons for liquid foods. New wood fibres also mean that the paper fibres in the cardboard are long – and thus attractive for new products from recycled cardboard.
The milk cartons must be sorted soon
By 2020, the countries must be in the process of collecting the composite materials such as milk and juice cartons. That decision was nodded to the countries when the Waste Directive was adopted, and the Danish Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of preparing guidelines for how the municipalities can start sorting milk cartons.
The Danish Environmental Protection Agency’s first cautious estimates show that we can recycle up to 15,000 tonnes of cartons if a good scheme is rolled out to all the country’s citizens. Before the municipalities can start recycling the cartons, however, it requires a little preparation to find out how it is best done. Should the cartons be collected together with other cardboard? This is already being done today in Sweden, among other places, while the countries south of us collect cardboard boxes together with the plastic waste.
… but no one can say exactly when to remember to sort your cartons
The Danish Environmental Protection Agency expects to have guidelines ready for how packaging cartons are to be sorted in the near future. Even though the guidelines are clear when the summer days come to an end, Danes should not expect that they can immediately start sorting even more of the waste at home.