Demystifying the carton recycling process


Posted: November 13, 2020 | Word Count: 569

While recycling is a proactive way to have a positive impact on the planet, putting recyclable items out on the curb is just one step in the overall process. Cartons, like those made by Tetra Pak, are recyclable and are common in many households since they package food and beverage staples including milk, soups, broths, juices, protein shakes and other prepared foods. There are two types of cartons: those that need to be refrigerated and those that are shelf-stable, which means they store food safely at room temperature.

Cartons are made mostly of paperboard, with thin layers of plastic. Shelf-stable, or aseptic cartons also contain a thin layer of aluminum. These layers maintain the quality, flavor and nutrients of the products without the need for preservatives or refrigeration, making them ideal for pantry items. And when recycled, both refrigerated and shelf-stable cartons can be transformed into many different types of new products.

Before this transformation can take place, there are important steps you can take to properly prepare cartons for their recycling journey. First, be sure to empty cartons of all remaining product, although you do not need to rinse them. Next, keep caps on the carton, and push straws (like those on a juice box) back into the package. This simple step ensures the cap and/or straw is recycled with the carton and doesn’t end up as litter. Cartons can be sorted manually or by machine, so it’s important not to flatten them so they can be easily identified by their three-dimensional shape.

After cartons and other recyclable materials are picked up from the curb, they’re taken to a materials recovery facility, or MRF, to be sorted by material type. Sorted cartons can follow one of two paths as they are transformed into new materials.

Path 1: From cartons to construction materials

In the first path, cartons are sent to a building material manufacturer and shredded into pieces the size of a quarter. The pieces are pressed together in a machine that looks like a large panini sandwich press. The press applies high heat, pressing the pieces together into boards of building material that can be used for eco-friendly roofing, floors and walls. Cartons make great building materials because of their mold- and moisture-resistant properties. A single 4-by-8-foot board can give new life to about 400 cartons!

Path 2: To the paper mills

In the second path, cartons are sent to a paper mill for processing. Cartons and water are put into a large machine called a hydrapulper, which separates out the layers of paperboard, plastic and aluminum. The pulp from the paperboard fiber is used to make products such as office paper, notebooks, tissues, paper towels and more. The small amount of plastic and/or aluminum left over can be used in different ways such as energy generation or manufacturing of wood-plastic laminates.

By reusing the raw materials in cartons for new products, virgin materials do not have to be harvested to make those same products. This results in reduced carbon dioxide emissions and less water and energy use. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, every ton of paper made from recycled materials conserves 7,000 gallons of water, 17 to 31 trees, 4,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 60 pounds of air pollutants!

To learn more about carton recycling in your community, visit the Carton Council’s website at www.recyclecartons.com.

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