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The Drink Box: Convenience Vs. Enviro-Guilt

August 28, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ Children love them. Parents can’t imagine life without them. They’re convenient, nutritious, tasty and fun.

So why do people feel guilty about using juice packs?

″Those juice boxes are convenient,″ says Mary Bussmann, a mother of two in Palo Alto, Calif., ″but the one issue I have with them is the environment. It’s just one more thing to pitch.″

It is a classic ’90s dilemma for eco-minded parents. No sooner do they finish struggling with the decision of whether to use convenient disposable diapers (bad 3/8) or messy cloth diapers (good 3/8), then their children are junking up the waste stream with those wonderful, handy and almost entirely non- recyclable drink boxes.

″I went to the grocery store last night,″ Ms. Bussmann said, ″and I thought, ‘Do I want these or do I want the apple juice in glass?’ And I opted for the glass.″

It’s tough for parents, but comments like that are downright scary for the people who make the little boxes, which have been called the most significant innovation in food science in the past half century.

So they’re fighting back.

The battle was joined last year when Maine banned the boxes. State officials said it made no sense to make people recycle glass and cans when they couldn’t recycle drink boxes, known in the industry as aseptic packages.

Maine’s ban had national repercussions.

″There was an immediate impact on the aseptic sales,″ said Kim Nilsen, marketing manager for After the Fall, a fruit juice producer in Brattleboro, Vt.

After the Fall sells most of its juice boxes to natural foods stores, whose customers are especially sensitive to environmental issues. Nilsen said the drop in sales was ″precipitous.″

Since then, drink box manufacturers have launched pilot recycling programs in a dozen states to prove that the packs can be recycled. And they’ve launched a public relations campaign to persuade people that drink boxes are more than recyclable - they’re also energy efficient and promote good nutrition.

Juice boxes are a convenient shape for shipping. It takes fewer trucks to ship them because they take up less space than bottles or cans.

And aseptic packaging requires less heat - hence, less energy - than canning or bottling, industry officials say. And once packed in the airless, lightless, sterile packs, even milk can be shipped and stored for long periods without refrigeration.

″The amount of energy saved by having that non-refrigerated distribution system is just amazing,″ said Marshall Cohen, president of the Aseptic Packaging Council, an industry association.

Cohen was speaking at a luncheon in New York recently sponsored by the Aseptic Packaging Council to get out its message. A juice box was set at every place. Most guests sipped wine poured from bottles. C’est la vie.

Katherine Thompson, a nutrition professor at the University of New England, spoke of the nutritional benefits of aseptic packaging. Because the process uses quick flashes of heat to sterilize the beverages, it doesn’t cook away as many nutrients as canning and bottling, she said.

Plus, Ms. Thompson said, juice boxes encourage children to drink healthy beverages.

″There is more than an environmental issue here,″ she said. ″You have to look at this package and all its attributes.″

But the environmental issue is crucial.

Two juice box manufacturers and their ad agency agreed to a settlement today with 10 states today prohibiting false claims that the popular containers are easy to recycle.

The agreement requires the companies to pay a total of $75,000 to the states and also permits state officials to screen future juice-box advertisements for questionable environmental claims.

The two companies, Tetra Pak Inc. and Combibloc Inc, and their ad agency, Lintas Inc., admitted no wrongdoing under the pact with the states.

″We’re very committed to recycling,″ Susan Levine, vice president for marketing of Combibloc Inc., said before the settlement. ″We’re planning to expand.″

So far, the Aseptic Packaging Council has mainly sponsored recycling in schools, since children are the biggest consumers of drink boxes and schools are relatively easy places to organize recycling programs. The drink boxes can be thrown in with milk cartons, which already have a recycling market.

The program has not been without controversy.

In Contra Costa County, Calif., across the bay from San Francisco, recycling specialist Sheila Cogan charged that a school recycling program sponsored by the Aseptic Packaging Council was only able to collect about 50 drink boxes a day - and could only recycle them with a huge infusion of industry money.

She said she was censured and then suspended for criticizing the program and for arguing that the Aseptic Packaging Council was using the county schools for its own gains.

″I spoke up and I got slapped,″ she said, ″and all I can say at this point is I feel like a voice in the wind.″

Louise Aiello, the county’s recycling manager, said it was too early to tell whether the drink-box program was working. She agreed with Ms. Cogan that it probably couldn’t pay for itself. But she said the county was happy to be the beneficiary of the industry’s largesse.

″On its own, it is not economically viable,″ she said. ″As long as they’re deferring the cost, that’s their problem, frankly.″

Ms. Levine of Combibloc said it was too early to tell whether drink boxes could be economically recycled. But she said she was optimistic.

What happens to recycled drink boxes? They are hydrapulped - churned up in a vat of water, essentially - until they can be broken down into their main ingredients, paperboard, polyethylene and aluminum. The paperboard is separated from the plastic and metal, and can be turned into paper. The other substances can be turned into a variety of less-than-essential products, including boat pier bumpers and signposts.

The process is costly, critics argue, and there’s not much of a market for the recycled material.

Industry officials say it’s not that costly, and the pulp it produces can fetch premium prices.

Ohio Pulp Mills in Cincinnati has successfully turned drink boxes into high-grade paper, company President Bob Mendelson said.

″That’s the good news,″ he said. ″The bad news is - that’s not recycling. That’s repulping. It’s only recycling when somebody buys that pulp.″

So far, he said, the market has been resistent, in part because virgin pulp from trees goes for virtually the same price.

Environmental organizations haven’t made a major issue out of drink boxes, which are, after all, a minuscule part of the solid waste problem. Still, they don’t like them.

″The reason that juice boxes are such a problem is that they are competing in a market segment in which almost all containers are very recyclable,″ said Jeanne Wirka, a solid waste expert with the Environmental Action Foundation.

Why bother recycling juice boxes, she asks? Why not just continue to use bottles and cans?

Consumers, of course, have their reasons.

″I use the juice packs during the week - one juice pack a day for school for my older daughter,″ said Diane Greenfield of Brooklyn, whose children are 8 and 2 years old.

″It’s really the convenience,″ she said. ″I don’t think you can beat it. I don’t think anything comes close. ... In my house, my daughter would use juice packs all the time if I gave her the choice.″

Ms. Greenfeld doesn’t give her the choice, in part because she worries about the environment. In fact, Ms. Greenfeld said she feels guilty about using them at all.

But, she said, ″Although I feel guilty, the convenience outweighs the guilt.″

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