One visit to Ziklum, a Tetra Pak recycling center in the State of Mexico, was enough to spark Ximena Vega’s interest. She realized then and there that Tetra Pak is hardly ever recycled, even though it’s made of cardboard, plastic and aluminum, all of which can be used by industry. “We didn’t even pay much attention to this material at home, where we do separate our trash, although it has so many uses,” she says.
That’s why Vega, upon completion of her studies to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Santa Fe Campus, chose to develop a reverse logistics model for gathering multi-layered packaging as a subject for her thesis. She based it on a mathematical model that establishes both routes and visiting days to 300 waste generation points in the Greater Mexico City Area envisaged in her project.
Because this material is very light, compaction is also a challenge, so she included waste compactors in the model.
“The biggest problem is that there isn’t a standardized way to separate Tetra Pak, not like there is for PET or cardboard. It’s a type of trash that goes directly to landfills, without any separation. Transporting Tetra Pak on its own is very expensive, because it’s just like transporting air if it hasn’t been properly compacted,” she explains.
By looking at the types of products that use multilayer packaging, Vega realized that the main producers of this waste would be coffee shops, as one of their basic supplies is milk. “My idea was to reach out to coffee shops like Starbucks or Cielito Querido. They generate so much Tetra Pak waste every day that the collection routes would be sustainable,” explains Vega, who’s only 23.
A diverse business
Looking after the environment and running a sustainable business go hand in hand, especially in Mexico, where Vega estimates that less than 5% of Tetra Pak undergoes some kind of recycling process.
“Even though reverse logistics has been developed more in Europe, it could be good business in Mexico, because it helps reduce the costs of businesses dedicated to product distribution. Besides, it represents a new market for those businesses looking to obtain these materials and give them a new lease of life,” says Mariajulia Martínez Acosta, an academic from the Tec’s School of Engineering and Sciences.
One kilogram of Tetra Pak consists of about 30 items. On average, each coffee shop generates up to 30 kilos of Tetra Pak every day, which a recycling plant buys for 2.5 Mexican Pesos per kilo. This means that weekly sales of the material would reach over 157,000 Mexican pesos if 30 kilos were collected every day from the 300 coffee shops Vega has included in her project.
In order to transform her project from ideas on paper into a real-world solution, Vega studied the needs of the Ziklum recycling plant, which recycles Tetra Pak and already has commitments for this product with clients in the automotive and paper industries, but only operates at 60% of its full capacity.
In her proposal, Vega (who’s a business analyst at the McKinsey consultancy firm) included 12 routes connecting up the 300 coffee shops, which will be provided with waste compactors that can compress up to 5 kilograms at a time. The packages are to be taken to a consolidation center and from there in larger volumes to the recycling plant, which is eager for this material. “Everything Ziklum recycles is already sold, and that’s why it wants to increase its recycling volume,” she says.
The cardboard can be turned into paper pulp, which can be sold to paper manufacturers to make notebooks with recycled paper or paper towels, as these don’t need high quality paper pulp. The plastic and aluminum can be compressed into sheets that can be used for insulation in the construction and automotive industries.
Mariajulia Martínez believes that Vega’s work can serve as an inspiration for other business dedicated to the gathering of materials through reverse logistics, which could grow in Mexico due to the increase in Internet shopping. According to figures from Asociación de Internet.mx, e-commerce (which has a demand for recyclable packaging) grew 20.1% from just 2016 to 2017, reaching 396 million Mexican pesos.
To become part of the sustainable solution of reverse logistics (and thus obtain payment for Tetra Pak recovery) it all needs to begin with waste separation. “People also make money when they take materials to recycling centers, where they get paid by the kilo for PET or cardboard. My proposed consolidation center could become a place where people can bring their recyclable materials and be part of this joint effort,” says Vega.
According to this Tec graduate, “The biggest problem is that there’s no standardized way of separating Tetra Pak like there is for PET and cardboard. It’s trash that goes directly to landfills, which is also very expensive to transport when it hasn’t been properly compacted.”
There is some kind of recycling procedure for at least 5% of Tetra Pak.
The cardboard can be turned into paper pulp and sold to paper manufacturers to make notebooks or paper towels, which don’t need high quality pulp.
The plastic and aluminum can be compressed into sheets of insulation for the construction and automotive industries.
*Editor’s note: this story was originally published in the magazine Manufactura in May 2019.