Have you noticed the many foods that you can now buy in Tetra paks? What we used to call "juice boxes" aren't just being used for juice! The pros and cons of using them --

Boxes or Cans?

I first encountered boxed milk 15+ years ago in Africa, then boxed wine and a few boxed veggies when we were in Mexico.  And most of us have seen juice boxes for kids.

Many foods that used to be canned or bottled are now coming in shelf-stable boxes:

  • Soups
  • Wine
  • Juice
  • Pasta sauce
  • Tomatoes and other vegetables

and probably more that I just haven’t noticed.

And I’ve gotten a couple of questions about whether these are good on a boat and I’ve seen it discussed on two different forums that I’m on.  In general, I like them but there are a few things to aware of.

Things I like about Tetra boxes instead of cans:

  • Far less wasted space.  The boxes fit tightly together, unlike stacking a bunch of round cans.
  • Because they fit together so nicely, there’s a lot less chafe over time.  And that means they don’t develop pin holes.
  • Since they don’t roll, they’re quiet without having to stuff rags around them.
  • No metallic taste in foods — some foods will pick up a taste from the cans.
  • No worry about cans rusting and leaving marks.  Cans can rust from salt air, and boxes won’t.  But if immersed in water — say in a damp bilge — the boxes can come apart or mildew.
  • Easier to flatten to put in trash than a can.
  • Have you noticed the many foods that you can now buy in Tetra paks? What we used to call "juice boxes" aren't just being used for juice! The pros and cons of using them --No need for a can opener.
  • If they have a screw top, very easy to save part for later.  NOTE:  The flip tops, despite being marketed as “resealable” often don’t stay closed with the motion of the boat.
  • For wine, no glass to break.  And those with a spigot are secure against air intrusion.
  • On the environmental side, since they fit tightly together and the packaging is lighter than a can, it takes less “power” to transport boxed goods to stores on a per-unit basis. They are also more efficient for stores to stock, taking less warehouse space and less shelf space.

Things I don’t like:

  • There’s plastic (and foil) in them, so you can’t burn them.  You have to treat them as plastic as far as trash goes.  Generally can’t recycle.  But many cans are plastic-lined and can’t be recycled for that reason.
  • Have to keep them in a dry place — but I keep all foods in bins, so this isn’t a problem.
  • The ones with a flip top won’t stay closed after opening due to the motion of the boat.  You have to put any unused portion of the contents in another container, such as a Lock & Lock.  But that’s true of a can as well.

The shelf life is fairly similar between cans or bottles and the Tetra packs, as long as they are in a dry place.

Overall, I prefer boxes to cans because of taking up less space and not rolling. There is the environmental aspect to consider, in that they have to be treated as plastic, but many “tin” cans are also plastic lined and pose a recycling problem.  This concern is at least partially offset by less energy needed to transport and less warehouse and store space taken up.

Have you used any boxed food that used to come in cans or bottles?  Which do you prefer?

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36 Comments
  • Bob Bechler
    Posted at 17 March 2014 Reply

    Not found any I like. Plus cans are easier to dispose of. Downside. Cans rust

  • ted broom
    Posted at 17 March 2014 Reply

    You have to be careful of smells boxes will absorb. We had a can(paper/cardboard) of chow mein noodles absorb bilge odor and ruined them. Metal cans will not do that..

  • Chris Link
    Posted at 17 March 2014 Reply

    I have found this packaging doesn’t do well with the jostling in the boat; leaky boxes much sooner than cans might rust.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 17 March 2014 Reply

      Must be a difference in storage areas, as I never had one leak, but did have problems with a few cans . . . good to know that some have had problems with them.

  • Kim
    Posted at 17 March 2014 Reply

    I just threw out a bunch of soups in tetra packs while cleaning a friends boat. They were one to two years expired, and they definitely looked sketchy – warped and concave and lots of discoloration. A lot of canned food can still be eaten if it’s expired, depending on the ingredients and the health of the can itself. Judging by these tetra packs, I would never eat expired food from them.

  • Debra Perfitt
    Posted at 17 March 2014 Reply

    I like most of the products. When needed I Ziplock or vacseal the cartons.

  • Diane Cook
    Posted at 17 March 2014 Reply

    I keep some boxed soup & Almond milk under the sink & haven’t noticed mildew before…I’ll have to monitor that! Thanks!

  • Becky Kyes (S/V Drnkyn Mnchkyn)
    Posted at 17 March 2014 Reply

    Do you rinse the boxes or cans before storing after use until they can be disposed of–and do you use salt water if you do rinse them? I want to know the nitty gritty. 30 months and counting until cruising.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 18 March 2014 Reply

      Always rinse the boxes or cans before putting in the trash — you’re just providing food for “critters” (bugs, etc.) otherwise. Use salt or fresh water depending on what you have, it doesn’t matter.

  • Helen
    Posted at 18 March 2014 Reply

    What about soup in a sashay …the dried package is small flat ,light, rust prove package….why waste the space to essentially water….Knorr make good soups…also homemade soup is awesome and easy

    • Marie
      Posted at 15 August 2015 Reply

      IF you have plenty of water. Those of us without a watermaker are often glad when the soup has its own liquid…

  • Cookie
    Posted at 18 March 2014 Reply

    Very disappointed that they are not recyclable. I always wondered why in the US we put our juice in plastic jugs instead of the boxes.

    • JLee
      Posted at 18 March 2014 Reply

      We just can’t get away from plastic, can we! 🙁

    • Merlin Brasil
      Posted at 26 April 2016 Reply

      Brazil makes extensive use of Tetra Paks. They also solved the recycling of them and have been exporting that expertise for years now.
      You can google “tetra pak recycling brazil” for more info.

  • Rose
    Posted at 18 March 2014 Reply

    Hi all,

    Does anyone know if there is any form of recycling in Mexico? We will spend 4 months there this winter (yippee!) but am wondering if they recycle anything anyway. Maybe the choice on that count doesn’t matter as much? I certainly prefer to be as “green” as reasonably possible.

    Thanks Rose

  • Sandra
    Posted at 20 March 2014 Reply

    I use a lot of the small tetra packs of milk, cooking cream and coconut milk. The cream and coconut milk tetras are smaller than a can, so just the right amount for adding to curries and sauces for dinners for two. And the individual serving milk tetras mean I don’t have to deal with milk going off, since we really only use it for coffee and tea. I was always throwing away the big tetras mostly full. Once you open a milk tetra, I don’t find it lasts as long as fresh milk. But as we are in SE Asia, fresh milk isn’t as easy to come by. I’ve also occasionally seen 1 litre tetras of yoghurt here that is imported from Europe. I believe it still has to be refrigerated even unopened, but it has a long shelf life until you open. Much nicer yoghurt than the local stuff.

  • Sandra
    Posted at 20 March 2014 Reply

    On a related note, in SE Asia you can also buy also foil packets of a lot of things we would usually buy canned in North America, like pineapple chunks, spaghetti sauce, tomato sauce, soy sauce and other seasonings. The empty packets should be washed and go in the trash, but really don’t take up much room. Downside, I’m always a little worried they might puncture (although we haven’t had that problem yet) and I don’t know how their long-term shelf life compares to cans. I try to rotate out the food regularly anyway.

  • Bob Bechler
    Posted at 18 April 2016 Reply

    The packaging must be disposed of in either case. I think cans sunk at sea in deep water have less impact than foil lined cartons in shoreside disposal sites.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 18 April 2016 Reply

      Many of us never travel that far offshore 🙂

    • Ana M García Arrese
      Posted at 18 April 2016 Reply

      Cans have plastic materials, too. I think foiled cartons in shoreside disposal sites have less impact than cans sunk at see in deep water

    • Bob Bechler
      Posted at 18 April 2016 Reply

      Ana M García Arrese not true at all. Cans and broken bottles sunk in deep seas will never be seen again. The broken glass of course will not dissolve but cans will. In either case the impact of our passing is insignificant at the depths. I have never seen a can that had any plastic in its composition. If you have been to any islands you will see that their disposal sites are stretched already. I do everything I can not to add to their problem. Some islands have their disposal sites near the beach and let the ocean relieve them of the accumulated trash.

      • Dave Skolnick (S/V Auspicious)
        Posted at 18 April 2016 Reply

        Hi Bob – I pitch a lot of things over the side outside the 3 mile limit as well. If you see a white coating inside a can that is a vinyl coating and should not be pitched. The real difficulty is that most modern cans only have a rolled lid at the top so taking the bottom off with a can opener to make crushing easier is a major challenge.

  • Patty Thompson
    Posted at 18 April 2016 Reply

    Carolyn since I had breast cancer (it was stage zero thank God) three years ago I am trying to stay away from plastics and cans. If plastics get too hot the chemicals leak into the item ( water bottles, etc) and a lot of cans are lined with bpa which also causes cancer. So I try to buy everything in glass or the tetra packs. I have found tomato paste in bpa free cans so I buy that. It is in small print on the can if it does not have bpa. Glass is a challenge on a boat but not impossible.

    • Lawrence Collins
      Posted at 18 April 2016 Reply

      I’m with you on this. I try to buy glass whenever I can. Not a fan of tin cans at all. In deep water glass isn’t a problem, just fill it, so it sinks quickly, down Nature will grind it down to sand or wonderful sea glass.

  • Kris Steyn
    Posted at 18 April 2016 Reply

    The Tetrapack are just as bad as disposable diapers in landfills …..
    I NEVER buy Tetrapack.
    At least the cans naturally oxidize … And the internal coating is relatively minute…

  • Dave Skolnick
    Posted at 18 April 2016 Reply

    Another well written article.

    The issue of plastic in both boxes and cans is important. Offshore (and as a delivery skipper I spend a lot of time offshore, more than most cruisers) plastic can’t go over the side and accumulated trash becomes a storage problem. In principle if there is room to store it as provisions there is room to store it as trash but in practice cruising is rarely that simple.

    For me both on delivery and our own cruising:

    Stock – bouillon cubes
    Milk – UHT in boxes
    Soup – cans (mostly because I am slow to change)
    Wine – boxes with some nice stuff in bottles
    Pasta sauce – bottles/jars (mostly because I am slow to change)
    Tomatoes and veg – cans and frozen in plastic bags

    In theory the boxes and commercial cans should last almost indefinitely. A bad can is easy to identify – rust and/or swelling – but I haven’t found a way to easily identify a “bad” box other than the date which is usually overly conservative.

    What I do avoid at all costs is dehydrated food. Cans or boxes help solve a water supply problem. Dried food just makes a water supply problem more challenging.

  • Zachary Schweter
    Posted at 22 April 2016 Reply

    Food tastes better in non-canned format…. after divorce no longer have a pantry, but can fit more food in cabinet bc of packs and boxes.

  • Maje Brennan
    Posted at 26 April 2016 Reply

    A lot of the boxes don’t have plastic. For the ones that do, I just cut the plastic out.

  • David Howard
    Posted at 27 April 2016 Reply

    My understanding is that all the different layers of the Tetra Pak carton (paper fibres, polymers and aluminium) can be recycled using relatively simple techniques and turned into new products. There are people out there who do this work. Chucking empty cartons in the sea hardly rates as appropriate human activity. Many so-called “primitive” tribes (when they still existed) had no word for ‘rubbish’ in their vocabulary

  • s/v FatDash
    Posted at 29 December 2016 Reply

    One other thing about the boxes. We had a couple of visitors onboard for a couple of days, mice, and they chewed a hole in every box of milk, juice, chicken broth, etc. very messy. Stuff in cans was not bothered.

  • Chris Link
    Posted at 12 October 2017 Reply

    I never had a problem with cans but had a couple tetra packs open leaks after heavy sailing.

    • Lisa Ballard
      Posted at 12 October 2017 Reply

      Really? Open how? What kind of leak?

    • Chris Link
      Posted at 13 October 2017 Reply

      The paks of San Marzano tomatoes developed small openings at the seams,were with many other cans but stored separate in a plastic bin on our sailboat.

  • Harriet Levine Hardy
    Posted at 13 October 2017 Reply

    Tetra packs are recyclable in my area (land based)

  • Dolores M. Ik'Nal
    Posted at 13 October 2017 Reply

    Lots more to the dumpfill or landfill:(

  • James Gyore
    Posted at 14 October 2017 Reply

    Light, shelf-stable and long life… All great from my point of view. Ok, they can get crushed if poorly stowed, but thats on you.

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