drink-empty-recycle: carton recycling poster

Walk into any elementary school cafeteria during lunchtime, and among the gap-toothed grins and paper sacks, you’re bound to see plenty of cartons.

Those little boxes of juice and milk add up, making carton recycling a smart addition to any school’s recycling program — and a great way to keep the nearly 5 billion cartons that schools currently throw away out of landfills. The Carton Council estimates that for each 100 enrolled students eating lunch at school in a given day, there will be 55 total cartons available to be recycled.

Administrators, teachers and concerned parents can all work together to implement a program that kids and the greater school community will be excited about. Here’s where to start:

1. Determine local carton recycling availability

More than 50 percent of the households in the U.S. that have access to recycling can now recycle cartons in their community’s recycling program. If a community can recycle cartons, carton recycling for schools is feasible. To find out if carton recycling is available in your area, go to www.recyclecartons.com and click on your state or enter your zip code. If carton recycling is available in your community, you are ready for step No. 2.

2. Contact your hauler

If your school already offers a recycling program, you’ll want to contact the company that picks up your material to see if cartons are accepted. Even if they aren’t listed on recycling flyers printed by the company, it’s worth asking because carton recycling is a relatively new commodity, and advancements in technology have increased the likelihood they are accepted. It could be that they just aren’t listed yet.

If your school has a separate recycling program for paper, such as Paper Retriever or GreenFiber, cartons will not be accepted because they contain plastic components. You’ll want to contact the hauler that recycles your containers to verify collection.

When talking to your hauler, ask if they will accept cartons in your recyclables and determine how they want to receive them. Do they want them separated or mixed with other recyclables? If your recycling program collects materials as “single-stream,” you may place your cartons in your bin with all the other recyclables. If your recycling program collects materials as “dual-stream” (paper items together and plastic, metal and glass together), place cartons with your plastic, metal and glass containers. Find out if they have any other requests.

If your hauler does not want to accept cartons, tell them that a local recycler accepts cartons and that you want to begin recycling them. Since haulers are paid for recyclables, they may be interested. Even if they’re not today, they might be down the road — your request could lead to a policy change in the future.

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3. Educate your stakeholders

A recycling program is only as effective as its participants, and there are numerous stakeholders for school recycling programs. Students may be tiny, but they’re mighty important, and you also have teachers and administrators to consider. Don’t forget about the custodial staff that typically handles your waste and recycling. All of these people need to understand that your school now recycles cartons.

There are plenty of options to communicate your recycling message, such as websites/blogs, newsletters, social media accounts and PTA meetings. But don’t underestimate the power of signage. Get creative with it! Every recycling bin at your school should include a picture of what is accepted, and you’ll definitely want a picture of milk and juice cartons on that flyer to increase participation. Making it as easy as possible to understand what’s accepted and what’s not — particularly among the kids — will help success rates.

For students, recycling drives are an effective way of boosting participation. You can dedicate one month per school year as “Carton Recycling Month,” and award the classroom that brings in the most cartons with a prize. Once students get in the habit of recycling, it won’t be as important to dangle an incentive.

For custodial staff for whom English is a second language, it doesn’t hurt to provide bilingual recycling messaging to prevent confusion. Hopefully your school is using blue bins for recycling (the unofficial color for recycling containers) to increase recognition, but labeling in multiple languages — like English and Spanish — helps ensure that your waste goes in the right place.

4. Place bins strategically

They say location is everything in real estate — that also applies to recycling and knowing where to place your bins. The school cafeteria is the ideal place for a carton recycling bin because it’s where all those milk and juice cartons are being doled out and where all the milk and juice is being consumed. There are two containers required in cafeterias for successful carton recycling: one container for students to empty leftover milk and juice liquids (typically a bucket), and a second container to collect the empty milk and juice cartons.

5. Monitor your progress

With all your school’s existing recycling programs, it’s a good idea to monitor the amount of material diverted, as this makes a great story for your administrative board and helps you renegotiate waste hauling fees. If you’re just now starting a carton recycling program, it’s easy to track your recycling participation from day one. Monitor the volume of cartons collected and use the results to set goals for future collection.

You’ll likely have more questions along the way, and the Carton Council has great resources to get you started with a program. These include classroom a start-up guide, activity guides, posters, impact calculator and flyer.

Does your school recycle cartons? What strategies have worked best to make the program successful?

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. Carton Council is one of these partners.