Recycling Mystery: Ice Cream Cartons

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I scream, you scream, we all scream when it comes to recycling ice cream cartons. Given that the average American consumes 23 pounds of ice cream each year, that’s a lot of packaging. So, are ice cream cartons recyclable?

As you probably know, the base material for ice cream cartons is paper — specifically, paperboard. This is the same material used for cereal and other food boxes, with a layer of clay called kaolin on the outside that allows the manufacturer to print branding, ingredients and other information.

But ice cream cartons are made of a special type of paper called wet-strength paperboard, which includes a plastic lining of polyethylene to ensure that it won’t break down in the freezer under extreme temperatures. Other examples of wet-strength paperboard include frozen food boxes and beer/soda carriers.

That polyethylene coating poses a recycling challenge because the process for recycling paper involves adding water to turn it into pulp. The polyethylene is water resistant and prevents the pulping process.

A City-by-City Solution

Ice cream carton acceptance in curbside recycling programs is by no means standardized in the U.S., and you can’t even predict its acceptance by region. In Seattle, they are accepted for recycling, while in Portland, they are not, even though these cities are less than 200 miles from each other and often both cited as examples of green cities. The same can be said of Austin (not accepted) and Fort Worth (accepted), which are also less than 200 miles apart.

A good rule of thumb is to look at the list of materials accepted in your local curbside program. If you don’t see either frozen food boxes or ice cream cartons specifically mentioned by name, don’t include them with your recyclables.

If your community doesn’t accept ice cream cartons, there’s not a viable alternative for you. Even if you compost at home, your bin will likely not get hot enough to break down the plastic lining of wet-strength paperboard.

Carton Preparation

If you are in a community that accepts ice cream cartons for recycling, be sure to empty out all remaining ice cream before you recycle, and give the carton a quick rinse.

This is important because if you recycle a carton that still contains ice cream, the ice cream will melt and contaminate your other recyclables — not to mention leave your bin sticky and attractive to wasps and other pests.

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Trey Granger

Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger

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