San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Dairy Giant Recycles Tetra Pak Into School Desks

What’s that? School desks, doghouses and roofs made of old milk and juice cartons?

Dos Pinos, the giant dairy cooperative that brings us milk, ice cream, yogurt and other lactic delights, is now helping clean up the environment while providing schools with desks and chairs and giving work to men in La Reforma prison, who make the desks out of recycled drink cartons.

Used but clean Tetra Pak cartons from milk, juice and other products are collected at recycling points including supermarkets, the national brewery and centros de acopio, or recycling stations, and brought to the company’s giant complex on the Inter-American Highway in El Coyol de Alajuela, northwest of San José. The used cartons are soaked to separate the paper, the plastic and the aluminum. The latter two are then shredded, mixed and pressure-packed to make the new material. This mixture is then shoveled into frames, pressed and baked, producing 1-by-2-meter láminas, or sheets, of a new product called Tetraclim. The paper byproduct from this operation is made into paper pulp, which is sold to paper companies.

Tetraclim sheets are more versatile than wood. You can paint it, nail it or screw it. It resists moisture and won’t burn, warp or twist. The offices and hallways of Dos Pinos’ buildings are full of Tetraclim samples: desks and chairs, shelves, wastebaskets, stands, pencil boxes and in and out baskets. Tetraclim can even be used in roofs and comes in either solid or corrugated sheets. In the yard behind the processing plant is a storage building made entirely of Tetraclim, with a matching little house for doggy.

To make school desks and chairs, sheets of Tetraclim are sent to the woodworking shop at the reformatory in San Rafael de Alajuela. Prisoners come and go, but many have learned a new trade, earned a little income while incarcerated and kept busy in the carpentry shop while making classrooms more comfortable for kids. The prisons at San Rafael and in Limón and Guápiles, in Limón province, have produced as many as 30,000 school desks a year since 1997, and can now produce up to 100,000 a month because of the availability of Tetraclim. This also will save a lot of trees in the process. Techniques for working with the new material are the same as for wood.

Tetraclim was invented by Tetra Pak in Brazil, which makes and supplies the millions of cartons used by Dos Pinos for juice, milk and yogurt – cartons that formerly filled up landfills. In 2007, Dos Pinos began experimenting with the material and set up a system for recovering old Tetra Pak cartons. It also started campaigns to make its employees and the public aware of the importance of recycling and reusing. Employees earn daisy stickers on a company wall mural for bringing in kilos of cartons. It takes 50 kilos or 1,800 cartons for each sheet of Tetraclim.

Dos Pinos was well aware of the mess to the environment caused by its containers and its obligation to help clean it up. This seemed a workable answer. By recycling Tetra Pak cartons, the company estimates it is reducing its solid waste by up to 74 percent, according to company literature, and it’s also saving trees and water by recycling the paper. The water used is filtered and reused. The company pays collection centers for the cartons to provide an incentive, and has a new business selling the finished Tetraclim sheets. Although Dos Pinos does not sell finished furniture, Tetraclim sheets are available from the company for ₡8,000 ($16) per plain sheet and ₡8,500 ($17) per corrugated roof sheet. They can be ordered by calling Miguel Rodríguez at 2437-3546.

The company claims that the new material will last up to 10 years. But only time will tell how the new school desks stand up to student shuffles, infantile graffiti and hidden wads of chewing gum.

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