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Protecting Natural Capital: Q&A with Tetra Pak’s Elisabeth Comere

Elisabeth Comere Tetra Pak natural capitalTetra Pak’s motto “protect what’s good” also describes the global food processing and packaging company’s approach to environmental management. Their strategy, which is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development goals, encompasses the entire value chain.

“Before, we were talking about sustainability and environmental performance in the sense of protecting the planet,” says Elisabeth Comere, director of environment and government affairs for Tetra Pak. She observes that recently the conversation has shifted. “Environmental performance has become a critical business driver.”

Comere has been with the company for about 13 years, initially in Europe and now in the US, where she is responsible for advancing Tetra Pak’s sustainability commitments in the US and Canada. She says that, like other companies, Tetra Pak relies on natural capital, the stock of natural resources including air, plants, soil, and minerals that provides benefits to humans.

We caught up with Comere to learn how the company is working to protect natural capital, and where carton recycling fits in.

What has been Tetra Pak’s approach to identifying sustainability goals?

In the last couple of years we took a step back and tried to understand our role in the world as a leader in processing and packaging solutions. There are a lot of global concerns that need to be addressed. What we did is spend time working with sustainability experts on a materiality assessment to define our priorities, what we stand for, and what we want to drive. We also reflected on how to contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What are the company’s current goals and where are you in relation to them?

Tetra Pak had defined a clear sustainability strategy with goals to meet by 2020. Those goals are still relevant; the framework and context is quite different. Now we try to understand how we can make a contribution when it comes to clean water, clean energy, climate, land use, waste, innovation, partnerships — the key goals.

Environmental performance has become a critical business driver. We rely on natural capital to make our products. We need to make sure those resources do not become scarce if we want to grow our business in the future.

We have three major strategic objectives, one related to sourcing, one to climate, and one to recycling. For each, we defined quantitative goals against which we measure and improve on. Take sourcing. The idea is to use natural resources that are responsibly managed. The package we produce is made from paperboard. So far, 100% of the paperboard we source for our cartons comes from either FSC-certified sources or from wood from those sources.

For climate, we have a goal to cap our CO2 emissions by 2020 at 2010 levels, regardless of our business growth. We managed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 16% despite a 19% increase in packages sold. And, since then, we are also working with the Science Based Targets initiative. We’ve collaborated with organizations like the World Resources Institute, the World Wildlife Fund, and the United Nations Global Compact to make sure we renew these commitments and make them even more ambitious.

The third goal is recycling. We commit to grow our recycling rates by 40% by 2020. Globally, we are at 26% already.

Is there a specific initiative related to the recycling goal?

In the US, recycling was a market where we were behind compared to other markets in the world. In 2009, Tetra Pak decided, with other carton manufacturers, to found an organization called the Carton Council. The point was increasing access to carton recycling throughout the US, making sure that all municipalities would accept cartons as part of their local recycling programs, and that the recycling industry would sort cartons as well. The goal was also to increase participation and consumer awareness.

When we started, access to carton recycling in the US was something like 18%, and today it’s at 62%. In less than 10 years we were able to make carton recycling mainstream. That’s big because cartons are not the most predominant packing in the whole waste stream.

What was standing in the way of carton recycling a decade ago?

The initial challenge was really in mobilizing the recycling industry, motivating them to start taking cartons in the system. The challenge was the rather small volume of cartons. If you look in a recycling bin, usually they’re not even 1% of the stream. You’re focused on a commodity that is not significant like PET or HDPE. Volume was the first barrier.

Recycling technology existed in other parts of the world, but in the US we had to develop it, meaning we had to build recycling outlets for the material. We talked to paper mills to convince them to start recycling cartons because they’re made of good virgin white fiber that’s a valuable material. They needed to see it. The challenge was about education and building the business case.

How does carton recycling benefit Tetra Pak, especially in terms of cost?

There is a value beyond cost savings. We see recycling at the core of what we offer in terms of value for customers. If we were not able to offer a package that is recyclable, that could impact us from a competitive standpoint.

I’m not saying that we are immediately saving costs when we invest in recycling, but we do see long-term value creation. It puts us at the same level as other packaging materials that are recyclable. It can also help differentiate us.

How does recycling relate to natural capital?

In the circular economy, you want to make sure that the life of your product can be extended as much as possible. Recycling helps that. You’re making a new resource available. We worked with a re-processor called ReWall based in Iowa. They take used cartons collected by municipalities, buy that material, and make building materials like drywall or insulation.

Tetra Pak has a preference for using resources that are not scarce, that can be regrown over time. Paperboard is a good example because if you source the fiber from a responsibly managed forest, you are protecting that forest. The trees can continue providing more fiber in the future. We are doing the same with bioplastic with some customers, using it for caps and the external barrier layer on cartons. Our long-term ambition is to have all our packages made from renewable alternatives.

This is a complex space. We are exploring, with different partners, what are the issues and alternatives like other plant-based materials, organic waste or algae. It just makes sense from a natural capital standpoint. Natural resources are limited. You need to make do with what you have, and work with the limit of the planet.

Is there a key lesson that you learned along the way?

Sustainability cannot happen if you are unable to engage others. To have a significant impact, you need a partnership mindset. Recycling is a great illustration. If we cannot engage with municipalities, material recovery facilities, waste haulers, local and state governments, other industry sectors, we wouldn’t be able to achieve anything. It’s complicated to engage all the right partners in a dialogue sometimes. That makes it even more exciting.

We’re now accepting submissions for the 2018 Environmental Leader Product and Project Awards. Early birds receive an entry fee discount when they submit by November 10. Learn more here.

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