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Over the last 7 years there has been a 222 percent increase in the number of households that can recycle their cartons.

In 2009, the Carton Council of North America formed to deliver long-term collaborative solutions in order to divert valuable cartons from the landfill. Tetra Pak, Elopak, SIG Combibloc, Evergreen Packaging, as well as associate member Weyerhaeuser, joined forces. At that time, only 18 percent of U.S. households had access to carton recycling through their local community programs.

According to Jason Pelz, vice president of recycling projects for the Carton Council of North America and vice president, environment, for Tetra Pak Cluster Americas, they started by focusing on increasing household “access” to carton recycling: the more consumers who can recycle cartons at home, the more materials flow into the stream and the less that go into landfills.

“Our strategy is all inclusive,” Pelz said. “For example, we work to help ensure end market availability for facilities to sell baled cartons for recycling. Recognizing that consumers need to know that cartons are accepted in their local programs, we work with communities to help with education. This includes developing and executing local campaigns, providing communities with grants to help disseminate education to their residents and providing resources to assist in education efforts. Additionally, we work with materials recovery facilities (MRFs) often providing equipment to help them sort cartons.”

Evolution of Food & Beverage Carton Recycling

Today, more than 58 percent of U.S. households can recycle cartons through their local recycling programs. Eighty of the top 100 U.S. cities accept cartons and nearly 67.8 million U.S. households can recycle the food and beverage cartons they consume.

“These communities see the value that food and beverage cartons bring to their programs, and every day new communities are signing up to accept them,” Pelz said.

Indeed, food and beverage carton recycling offers many benefits – to recycling companies’ bottom line, as well as to the environment. Cartons are made mainly from paper, which is a renewable resource, they are lightweight and compact in design, and they have a low carbon footprint.

“Consequently, cartons have global demand and are shipped to paper mills, where the paper fiber is extracted to make new products such as paper towels, tissue and even building materials,” said Deanna Bratter, director of corporate sustainability at WhiteWave Foods, a company with a long-standing history of supporting initiatives that positively impact our planet. They partner with the Carton Council, a collaboration of carton manufacturers and recyclers, and support their efforts to expand carton recycling access in the U.S.

Bratter stresses that there is a lot of confusion about carton recycling. For example, consumers assume a carton is not recyclable if it does not have a recycling logo, when in fact that is a myth.

“The material itself is recyclable – the challenge is really whether or not that consumer’s community recycling center can or will accept them,” Bratter said. Another misconception is that cartons have a wax coating which prevents them from being recycled. In reality, they do not contain any wax. They are made mainly from paper in the form of paperboard and contain a thin layer of polyethylene (plastic) that is actually able to be separated in the recycling process.

“Because the vast majority of the products we make are packaged in cartons, we plan to use this influence to help consumers learn about the availability and importance of carton recycling,” Bratter said. “While the Carton Council works to increase access in recycling, WhiteWave uses the scale of our brands to promote participation in markets that are new to carton recycling, as well as those that have had access for some time.”

Making Unique Inroads

In new markets, the Carton Council employs a number of strategies to raise awareness about access to carton recycling – starting with where people generally purchase cartons – at grocery stores and retailers. They work closely with companies across a myriad of industries that are recycling food and beverage cartons in new and innovative ways.

ReWall Company, for example, manufactures high quality green building materials using recycled food and beverage cartons.

Jan Rayman, chief executive officer at The ReWall Company says the company utilizes the entire carton to make their products.

Once cartons have been consumed and collected, they are sorted and baled at a materials recovery facility.

“After we receive cartons that have been sorted and separated at a MRF, we shred and press-melt them into high-quality green building materials, such as roof cover board, exterior sheathing, moisture- and mold-resistant composite panels, ceiling panels, and wallboard and backer board,” Rayman said. “The inherent properties of the beverage carton – durability, moisture and mold resistance – are also exactly what building owners, architects, and specifiers are looking for in high performance building materials.”

Cartons are manufactured from an inherently moisture and mold-resistant composite material that also is extremely durable. These are all the same properties that builders look for when they want to build energy efficient, high performance healthy buildings.

“Our process is environmentally friendly; we do not need to strip away the PE layers or remove the ink from the packaging to manufacture our products, nor do we use added glue, water or chemicals,” Rayman said.

ReWall’s primary customers at this time are government and institutional projects. For example, their roof cover board has been used in roofing systems on the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Recently, Iowa State University utilized ReWall’s materials when they put new roofs on their Molecular Biology and Durham Center lecture halls.

“The contribution of ReWall to the landfill reduction is easy to demonstrate based on the sheer volume of waste that is converted into ReWall,” Rayman said. About 30 cartons make up a single 2’ x 2’ ReWall ceiling tile and at least 400 cartons are recycled in each and every .5” x 4’ x 8’ ReWall board. This means that each truckload of ReWall products removes almost 300,000 cartons from the landfill.

Meeting Requirements

The food and beverage industry as a whole has used cartons to deliver products to consumers for many years. And partnering with organizations like the Carton Council gives these manufacturers an avenue to help expand recycling capabilities across the U.S. and ensure product packaging has the most sustainable end-of-life scenario possible – which is being recycled into new materials versus ending up in the landfill.

“Over the past 6 years, carton recycling access for U.S. households has grown more than 200 percent,” Bratter said. “That’s a lot of change and a lot of work needs to be put in toward raising awareness and, in turn, inspiring participation.”

Shelf-stable cartons (or aseptic) contain on average 74 percent paper, 22 percent polyethylene and 4 percent aluminum. Refrigerated (or gable-top) cartons contain about 80 percent paper and 20 percent polyethylene.

As Pelz explained, like any other material, cartons are sorted and baled at sorting facilities and then shipped to recyclers. Cartons are recycled in two possible ways. At paper mills, fiber is extracted and separated in a machine called a hydrapulper, which resembles a giant kitchen blender. The pulp that comes out is used to make paper products. They then go on to make tissues, paper towels, writing and office paper.

Another type of recycler uses whole cartons to make green building materials such as wall board, sheathing, ceiling tiles and backer board.

Carton recycling has been on a steady rise in recent years thanks to the Carton Council and efforts from supporters. Soon 60 percent of residents in the U.S. will have access to carton recycling – that’s more than 10,000 communities and 65 million households across 48 states.

Earlier this year, the Carton Council commissioned a study that revealed that 91 percent of consumers say they expect food and beverage brands to actively help increase the recycling of their packages. Sixty-seven percent of consumers report they would assume a package is not recyclable if it did not have a recycling symbol or language on it. The survey also revealed that a majority of consumers (57 percent) look to a product’s packaging first for recycling information, before turning to other sources.

“Our hope is that the myths around carton recycling disappear and the general population comes to think of cartons and recyclability as a given, much the way that aluminum cans and glass bottles are viewed today,” Bratter said.

The largest challenge facing the future for carton recycling is going to be the required shift from focus on access to a steadfast and determined focus on participation. Now that our communities can recycle, will they?

“How do we inform, incentivize and inspire them to participate in the movement by recycling their cartons and keeping them out of landfills?” Bratter asked. “We believe this is the next big effort required and we are fully committed to helping raise the awareness needed for success.”

Published in the October 2016 Edition of American Recycler News