Recycling Mystery: Milk and Juice Cartons


Most of us are pretty familiar with the concept of recycling our paper and plastic materials. But what about their hybrid counterpart: the carton? Despite the second-life value, many cartons do not get recycled. In 2009, at least half a million tons of carton waste ended up in landfills. Here’s some helpful information that will help demystify the carton.

What Makes Up a Milk/Juice Carton?

Cartons are a type of packaging for food and beverage products you can purchase at the store. They are easy to recognize and are available in two types — shelf-stable (or aseptic) and refrigerated (gable-top).

Shelf-stable cartons, as the name suggests, are found on store shelves and are used mostly for juice, milk, soy milk, soup, broth, and wine. Refrigerated cartons are found in chilled sections of grocery stores and contain products like milk, juice, cream, and egg substitutes.

shelves of juice cartons at a store

There are other products that are also called cartons — ice cream cartons and take-out cartons. From a recycling standing point, these are not the same as shelf-stable and refrigerated carton types and are not included in the recyclable carton category.

Paper, plastic, and aluminum are layered together to make cartons. A typical shelf-stable carton averages 74 percent paper, 22 percent plastic, and 4 percent aluminum. The refrigerated cartons skip the aluminum and usually stick to an 80 percent paper, 20 percent plastic combo.

Why Should I Recycle Cartons?

Recycling your cartons is a great way to keep unnecessary waste out of landfills, but your green contribution doesn’t stop there. The paper in cartons comes from a renewable resource that is responsibly replenished — trees! This means you are conserving energy by choosing a sustainable product package in the first place.

On top of that, cartons require fewer natural resources to transport due to their efficient product-to-packaging ratio. On average, a product sold in a shelf stable carton is 94 percent product and 6 percent packaging. This means fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced since they can be shipped using fewer trucks.

Also, once they have been recycled, the high quality of the materials used in cartons makes them very desirable for remanufacturing into new products. All three materials used to make cartons can be repurposed.

READ: How to Recycle Milk and Juice Cartons

Finally, carton manufacturers are committed to increasing access to carton recycling in the United States, avoiding disposal in landfills and ensuring cartons continue to live on once the contents are gone.


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Common Misconceptions About Cartons

Cartons are not recyclable.

False! Cartons are indeed recyclable. Made from mostly paper, cartons are in high demand to be made into new products. Manufacturers of cartons have joined forces as the Carton Council to increase access to carton recycling across the United States. So far, carton recycling has increased from 18 percent of households in 2008 to 37 percent in 2011.

How did this happen? The Carton Council worked with all the key players in the recycling world from the recycling facilities to mills to make sure that cartons could be handled properly at recycling facilities and recycled into new products. By investing financial and technical resources, the Carton Council has made cartons a reality in over 2,000 programs nationwide. Carton recycling may be coming to your program soon!

I cannot recycle cartons because they don’t have a symbol on them.

False! In order for any packaging to be able to feature the recycle symbol, recycling of that packaging must be available to a majority of households in the U.S. This process is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. While cartons are making progress towards placing the recycle symbol on packages, the goal is to reach that majority by 2015.

So for now, many cartons do not feature the recycle symbol. Consumers can determine if cartons are recyclable in their program by visiting the Carton Council or Earth911 Recycling Search.

Cartons are wax coated.

False! Cartons do not contain any wax and have not for many years. All cartons are made mainly from paper. Gable-top (or refrigerated) cartons contain additional layers of plastic, while aseptic (or shelf-stable) cartons contain additional layers of plastic and aluminum.

Cartons were designed to keep the product inside as fresh as possible, blocking out light and odors that may cause products to spoil. A cool fact about cartons — the colorful labeling on the outside is printed on the thin plastic layer. When recycled, removing that layer leaves behind valuable paper fibers that are used to make new paper products.

Take a deeper look at the anatomy of a carton. Photo: Carton Council

Take a deeper look at the anatomy of a carton. Photo: Carton Council

How Does Carton Recycling Work?

So, what happens to that carton after it’s picked up from your recycling bin? Typically, its journey begins at a materials recovery facility where it gets separated from other waste and types of recyclables.

From there, the cartons get shipped to paper mills where they are mixed with water in a giant blender called a hydra-pulper. This process separates the paper from the plastic and aluminum. Once this is complete the paper fiber is ready to be transformed into other products such as tissues, office paper, and even building materials depending on the area of the country and the mill.

The plastic and aluminum are collected from the hydra-pulping process as well. The plastic, when re-purposed separately, is often used for shipping crates and building materials. However, in North America it is left in a combined state with the aluminum creating a material called a poly/al mix. The poly/al mix has a limited secondary use market, but some mills have been able to use it to generate energy for their facilities.

What Do I Need to Know About Recycling Cartons?

  • Always check your local program for recycling guidelines in your community. Curbside pickup is gaining popularity, but is still not available everywhere.
  • Be sure to remove any lids, straws, or fancy extras that come with your packaging. They go in the garbage.
  • Only recycle empty cartons. Rinsing isn’t required for recycling them, but it does help ensure that the container is empty, as well as help reduce potential odor or pest issues if you plan to store your recyclables.
  • Flatten your cartons to aide storage and ease of handling.
  • When in doubt, keep it out. This rule of thumb is important with all recycling practices. Rather than risk contaminating your local recycling stream, keep materials that you aren’t sure about out.

Find your local recycle solution for cartons

Editor’s note: Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. The Carton Council is one of these partners.

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