About Carton Recycling

About Carton Recycling

Food and beverage cartons are one of the most sustainable packages available. They are made mainly from paper, a renewable resource from well-managed forests. As a lightweight packages option, cartons have a low carbon footprint as well as a low package-to-product ratio at 93 percent product and just 7 percent packaging.

There are two types of cartons available:

  • Shelf-stable (or aseptic) – are comprised on average of 74 percent paper, 22 percent plastic (polyethylene) and 4 percent aluminum. They are found on grocery store shelves and are used for soups, water, milk, juice, beans, wine and nutritional shakes.
  • Refrigerated (or gable top) – contain approximately 80 percent paper and 20 percent polyethylene. They are found in the chilled section of the grocery store and are used to package milk, juice, cream and other beverages.

Like any other material, cartons are sorted and baled at sorting facilities and then shipped to recyclers. Cartons are recycled in one of two possible ways.  At paper mills, the 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. This separation process is simulated in this video. Cartons go on to create everyday products such as paper towels, tissues, toilet paper and office and other writing paper.

Another type of recycler uses whole cartons to make environmentally friendly building materials such as interior wall boards, roof cover board, ceiling tiles, exterior sheathing and floor underlayment.You can check out this video from our friends at Dem-Con Companies to learn more about the carton recycling process.

Cartons are a sustainable packaging option, but their lifecycle ends if they end up in a landfill. That's why it's important to spread the message that they can, and should, be recycled.


About the Carton Council

The Carton Council is composed of four leading carton manufacturers, Elopak, SIG Combibloc, Evergreen Packaging and Tetra Pak. Formed in 2009, the Carton Council works to deliver long-term collaborative solutions in order to divert valuable cartons from the landfill. Through a united effort, the Carton Council is committed to building a sustainable infrastructure for carton recycling nationwide and works toward their continual goal of adding access and growing recycling of cartons throughout the U.S.


The Carton Council Position on Contamination 

China’s bans have driven an increased focus on contamination, with a particular emphasis on ensuring purity in bales. Contamination happens when non-recyclable items – like diapers, plastic bags and wrap, metal wires and hangers, garden hoses, clothes and batteries – are mixed in with recyclable materials.   
When residents, who may have the best of intentions, try to recycle these items, it can cause headaches that go beyond problems with purity standards. Contamination can damage equipment at materials recovery facilities (MRFs), cause potential safety hazards for workers, and threaten the recycling industry by dirtying the quality materials that should be recycled, like food and beverage cartons, aluminum cans and plastic bottles, paper and cardboard.    
Food and beverage cartons made mainly from paper, a renewable resource, contain some of the highest-quality fiber in the recycling stream. This commodity is recyclable and should not end up in landfills. The Carton Council encourages facilities and communities to ensure cartons are included in their recycling programs and lists of recyclable materials. Cartons should not be considered a containment.  
To get the highest value, we recommend facilities sort cartons into their own grade (Grade #52). New technology utilizing artificial intelligence is helping to efficiently separate cartons, and there are steady, growing  end markets available for Grade #52 cartons. When sorted into Grade #52, cartons are turned into tissues, paper towels, writing paper or eco-friendly building materials.  
If not sorted into Grade #52, cartons are likely flowing into mixed paper, which isn’t optimal for achieving the highest quality and value for cartons. 
The Carton Council has resources to help communities include cartons in their recycling programs and ensure carton recycling is happening efficiently and effectively. Additionally, we are proud to work with other industry groups, like The Recycling Partnership’s Fight Contamination Initiative, to help ensure that residents are recycling right and that valuable materials are not ending up in landfills.  
The Carton Council Recommendation on How to Recycle Cartons, Straws and Caps: Food and beverage cartons are sorted most efficiently when they retain their original shape, so there is no need to crush or flatten them before recycling. They should be empty of any remaining product, as with any other recyclable, and the caps can be left on. 
For cartons that come with straws, the Carton Council recommends pushing the straw back into the carton after consuming the product to help ensure it will not end up as litter and won’t contaminate other materials. The carton straw and carton cap do not impact the end markets consuming Grade #52 cartons. 
FAQs About Straws/Caps/Flattening/Rinsing:
Q: Should I crush my carton before putting it in the recycling bin? Do I need to rinse it out?
A: Empty any remaining product, and that’s it! No need to heavily rinse or crush. Cartons are sorted more efficiently when they retain their original shape, so you shouldn’t crush/flatten them before they are put into the bin.  
Q: Can I recycle the caps on cartons? What about the straw?
A: Yes and yes! Once you’ve emptied the remaining product, put the cap back on the carton and/or push the straw in to ensure both items get recycled and don’t end up as litter.  
Q: My recycling facility says they don’t accept straws. 
A: While many programs do not accept loose straws, pushing the straw into the carton ensures it will not end up as litter. When the carton is sorted at the MRF, the straw remains inside and thus is not able to contaminate other materials and can be accepted at end markets for Grade #52 cartons