BOSTON -- The aseptic drink box is in a squeeze.
The containers are lightweight and can store liquids for long periods without refrigeration.
These qualities helped it win praise from the Institute of Food Technologists as "the most significant food science innovation of the last 50 years," beating other innovations such as frozen juice concentrate, safe canning techniques, and microwave ovens.
Environmentalists, however, complain that the 8-ounce boxes -- made of paper, plastic, and aluminum -- are not recyclable. More than 4 billion boxes were consumed and discarded last year.
A 1989 Maine law bans the drink box and other non-recyclables from supermarket shelves. Environmentalists contend that disposal costs outweighs the benefits of the pack's three-layer design. Until now, no one has found a way to separate and recycle the mixed materials.
Last month, the aseptic packaging industry began trying to work out of that squeeze, opening pilot recycling programs for drink boxes in six locations in North America.
"We want to put to bed the myth that it cannot be recycled," says Ed Klein, president of the Aseptic Packaging Council council in Washington, which is supported by the only United States manufacturers, Tetra-Pak and Combi-Bloc.
The pilot program will determine whether or not it is economically profitable to recycle the drink boxes.
In California, one recycling plant is paying a collection agency $120 a ton for shredded and cleaned used drink boxes and milk cartons.
The recycled product sells for $400 a ton.
The pack is popular in Europe and Japan; it provides milk to people in developing countries where refrigeration is scarce. In Germany, some boxes are being recycled into plastic lumber products. But the container is relatively new to the U.S., introduced in the early 1980s.
Mr. Klein says the industry has not had opportunity to develop recy
cling the way makers of glass and aluminum containers have. So The council is now sponsoring recycling programs in tandem with supermarkets in five U.S. states and Canada.
The recycling issue aside, the containers have environmental advantages:
* Savings in energy: Contents do not require refrigeration. Lightweight boxes are less costly than glass to transport.
* Efficient shape: Square boxes stack more tightly than round containers, taking less space.
* Less Packaging: A drink box is 97 percent beverage, and 4 percent packaging, measured by weight. Glass bottles deliver about 70 percent product, and 30 percent packaging.