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Juice Box Makers Wrap Up Agreement on Recycling Label

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Against a backdrop of growing controversy over the packaging of consumer goods, the attorneys general of 10 states--including California--reached an agreement Wednesday with the two U.S. manufacturers of juice boxes in a dispute over the containers’ environmental soundness.

The handy boxes, especially popular with the parents of younger children, were promoted in two newspaper ads last year as being “as easy to recycle as your daily newspaper.”

But the attorneys general task force on “green” labeling--which has been drafting definitions for such product claims--took strong exception. Although the boxes are technically recyclable, they said, a lack of collection programs has meant that the vast majority still end up in the nation’s landfills.

Under the voluntary agreement with Tetra Pak Inc. of Chicago and Combibloc Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, the boxes won’t be labeled as recyclable unless they also carry the telephone number and location of recycling programs that accept them.

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“This case will help set the national standard for ‘recyclable’ claims,” Minnesota Atty. Gen. Hubert H. Humphrey III, who heads the task force, said Wednesday. Industry representatives described the agreement as “amicable.”

In the background is a larger debate over the recycling virtues of various packaging materials.

Environmentalists would like to slow the trend toward packaging made of multiple materials. Juice boxes, in particular, are made of thin layers of paper, polyethylene plastic and aluminum. That makes them much harder to recycle than glass, for instance, or even containers made of a single plastic.

“And drink boxes are the fastest-growing package on the market,” said Resa Dimino, outreach coordinator of the solid-waste alternatives project for Washington-based Environmental Action, an activist group. “Kids who used to have thermoses or glass or aluminum containers in their lunch boxes now have juice boxes.”

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More than 3 billion drink boxes are sold every year in the United States.

Dimino and others are convinced that recycling the boxes is bound to be more expensive than recycling other packaging--and that ultimately the consumer will pay.

Although the packaging industry subsidizes drink-box recycling programs across the country, Dimino expects it to withdraw support once local programs are in place. If so, that would leave communities, school districts and others holding the bag for the higher recycling costs.

Environmentalists’ suspicions are based on the performance of polystyrene packaging manufacturers, who helped establish plastic recycling programs on the East Coast but now--in Connecticut--have withdrawn support, asking communities and other groups to pay collection and other costs.

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Packagers say they won’t prematurely end their support for recycling programs. “Our long-term goal is to put these things on a sound financial footing,” said John E. Davis, spokesman for the Aseptic Packaging Council, which represents the drink-box manufacturers.

The juice box industry stakes its claim to environmental acceptability on the assertion that the boxes represent less packaging material per unit of juice than other containers.

“Even if this package is not recycled, there is less waste going to the landfill per serving than any other leading package for milk or juice,” Davis said. But in this war of words, even that claim is murky.

Environmentalists say the proper basis for comparison is volume. On those terms, the box does not have much of an advantage over, for instance, a tin can. The industry, understandably, prefers to make its comparisons by weight.

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Meanwhile, no one knows the true costs of drink-box recycling. The Aseptic Packaging Council is studying several school district and curbside recycling programs.

“I think the jury’s still out on the economic returns,” Davis said. “But we’re optimistic.”


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