Thinking out of the box: competitors join forces to save an industry.

Author:Jonsson, Dennis
Position:Alliance between Tetra Pack Inc and Combibloc Inc - Includes related article on grass-roots public relations campaigns by companies

Dennis Jonsson of Tetra Pak Inc., and Warren Tyler of Combibloc, Inc., the chief executives of the two U.S. manufacturers of aseptic packaging, popularly known as the "drink box," wage a daily battle over market share in the crowded world of food and beverage packaging suppliers. Yet, they also have an unusual environmental partnership solidified during a tumultuous five-year journey from the backwoods of Maine to the White House. By checking their guns at the door and joining forces in a time of crisis, they transformed the aseptic package from an "environmental pariah" to an earth-friendly, Presidential award-winning celebrity.

TYLER: The ban on aseptic packaging in Maine was a CEO's worst nightmare. One day in 1989, I received a call from one of the technical directors at Ocean Spray, a customer who worked at their headquarters in Massachusetts, demanding, "What are you going to do about it?" I responded, "Do about what?" The ban came totally out of the blue. We were desperately unprepared.

Packaging is a crowded, competitive industry. Major beverage producers use all types of packaging even within individual product lines. Aseptics, glass, aluminum, paper, and plastic packaging manufacturers fight tooth and nail for even slight market share gains. The industry watched from a distance - most didn't want to join our fight. With excruciatingly tight margins, some of our competitors, particularly those losing market share to aseptic packaging, wouldn't have minded seeing the aseptic package killed. At best, most were going to stay neutral. There was a serious question as to whether aseptic packaging was going to make it in the U.S.

JONSSON: Ed Klein, our environmental expert, had been on board for only two weeks after being hired away from the Environmental Protection Agency in our first real attempt to address environmental issues, when he from a trip to find a cryptic note: "You're banned in Maine."

Our reaction was, "This is really unfair," because ours is a great environmental package, and was more efficient in delivering beverages than any other packaging form available on the market at the time. With a minimal use of paper and aluminum, aseptic packaging offers great energy efficiencies and can deliver products that don't require refrigeration without the use of preservatives or additives. Between the packaging process and the materials, there are no toxins in the products. The light weight of the packaging and its ability to be transported and stored without refrigeration translates into energy savings during transportation and storage. We were insulted. We believed in the package from a societal standpoint. As a company, we had never been involved in the political process. We had no real understanding of how to deal with it.

What's more, we were debating strategy among ourselves - whether to focus on recycling or promote the benefits of aseptic packaging relative to glass, aluminum cans, and other packaging. As a source-reduced package (made with minimal materials), aseptic packaging is by nature better for the environment. But others had already defined the issue. The aseptic package had been branded a national symbol of the throwaway society. Recycling had become the mantra for the environmental impact of a package.

TYLER: We had never sat down with Tetra Pak before. They were larger and had no inclination or need to sit down with us. There was little we felt we could get out of a relationship with them.

However, since Tetra Pak was also an aseptic packaging producer, I suggested we sit down and discuss the Maine ban. At first, we tried to pull together a group of our customers, including Ocean Spray, Coca-Cola Foods, Procter & Gamble, and General Foods. But most...

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