Culture Shocked in Hong Kong: Aren’t Juice Boxes for Kids?

Last month Senior Project Manager Minal Mistry and I spent ten days in Hong Kong launching the Asian premiere of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s popular training course, The Essentials of Sustainable Packaging. SPC members had suggested bringing the course to China as part of the SPC’s International Education and Outreach initiative, and it brought the total number of countries in which the course has been offered to four. The course was offered twice in Hong Kong, once in a general session coordinated by the Hong Kong Productivity Council and once in a private session for a retail company, and additionally we spent a significant amount of time training a cadre of six professionals who will continue to teach the course throughout China with the SPC’s Hong Kong-based partner, Sustainable Packaging Limited.

Ten days proved to be ample time to feel immersed in an unfamiliar culture, and we experienced many interesting cultural differences, including one specifically related to packaging: the prevalence of beverages in aseptic cartons. On day one when we arrived to meet the future course trainers and commence the “train-the-trainer” portion of our visit, we were quickly offered a citrus-infused herbal tea—in a good old punch-the-straw-through-the-top juice box.

The more we traveled around Hong Kong, the more we realized that this choice of beverage container wasn’t at all out of the ordinary for Hong Kong consumers. Vending machines frequently contained aseptic cartons with every non-carbonated beverage imaginable, and I know I personally enjoyed several juices, teas, and coffee-based drinks from aseptic cartons—all while trying to take myself seriously and not feel like a kid chugging apple juice.

What’s the reason for the difference in “beverage container culture”? My bet is that the Asian preference for non-carbonated beverages plays a role, as might their preference for room-temperature drinks (now think about the sustainability implications of that preference—no refrigeration necessary!). Most of all though, there’s some kind of underlying perception in the US that juice boxes are for kids, and that perception simply does not seem to exist in Hong Kong.

It turned out that the ubiquity of juice boxes was quite helpful, because the aseptic carton is a wonderful example for an instructor in a packaging course. Taking into account the straw and its wrapper, the container includes at least four different major packaging materials in its construction. It uses adhesives and several colors of direct-printed inks. It’s one of the best examples of cube-efficiency. It highlights the often-overlooked sustainability advantage of shelf-stable packaging that does not require refrigeration. The particular carton you see in these photos had thoughtful end-of-life messaging (something to the effect of “pull corners out and flatten before disposal”). It even became the centerpiece of a conversation about packaging legislation and how we try to define categories of packaging (e.g. does the straw wrapper count as beverage packaging?). And of course, it’s a prime example of the changing landscape of recycling.

So thanks go to the Hong Kong culture for providing us with ample opportunities to discuss the aseptic carton in the context of sustainability. And thanks Hong Kong, for reminding me that it’s okay to sip from a juice box while wearing a suit.


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