How to Identify and Recycle Composite Paper Packaging

Many paper products are easily recycled, but not all of them. When a product is a composite of different materials, it can be difficult or impossible to recycle, depending on local recycling capabilities. Composite paper packaging made to help preserve food or liquids isn’t consistently recyclable. So, even though you might mean well by buying paper-packaged products to avoid plastic, you might be buying something destined for a landfill.

Why Recycle Composite Paper Packaging

Recycled paper can be used in many products, including new paperboard and composites. Using recycled paper instead of virgin material helps save trees that would otherwise be headed for paper mills. In addition, the process of making new paper produces sulfur dioxide pollution, which can be cut in half by using recycled paper.

Finding ways to make composites more recyclable will cut the need for new trees to be cut down and new material to be processed. You can help this growing industry by voicing your preference for recycled and recyclable paper products. Ask your community leaders to invest in new technology to handle composites and petition companies to use recyclable packaging with fewer embellishments. For now, we must do our best to avoid unrecyclable products so that companies are less incentivized to make them.

How To Identify Composite Paper Packaging

There are a variety of composites used in paper packaging. These are the types you’re most likely to run across.


Beverage cartons are made of paperboard, a layer of plastic, and in some cases, a layer of aluminum to keep the contents fresh on the shelf. Refrigerated cartons contain about 80% paper and 20% polyethylene, a plastic that is difficult to separate from paper. Unrefrigerated (shelf-stable) cartons contain about 74% paper, 22% polyethylene, and 4% aluminum.

The good news is that the layers on these items are technically removable by recyclers, so they may be accepted by your curbside program. But before you put them in your bin, contact your recycling program to find out if they accept cartons. If your local program can’t process this packaging, putting it in your curbside bin is just wishcycling, reducing the efficiency of the recycling process. Check your local recycling service’s requirements, as different programs accept different materials.

The bad news is that even though cartons can be more sustainable than plastic packaging, claims that they are earth-friendly often amount to greenwashing because there are only three carton recycling facilities in the U.S. By comparison, there are about 20 paper mills that collect and recycle cartons in Europe alone. Shipping cartons thousands of miles for processing involves a large carbon footprint that may erase the benefits of recycling.

Wax-Coated Cardboard

The cardboard used in take-out cups, food packaging containers, and for storing or shipping perishable produce is typically not accepted in curbside bins. These items should not be mixed with other paper products. However, waxed cardboard is accepted at many transfer stations, where it is typically burned to generate energy. Check with your local municipality or add your ZIP code to this Earth911 Recycling Search.

Wax paper is similar to wax-coated cardboard and also can’t be placed into recycling. Because many waxes contain chemicals made from oil, paper treated with paraffin and other petroleum waxes are not compostable for use in a garden or farm. TerraCycle offers a Laminated Paper Packaging Zero Waste Box that accepts wax-coated paper. It is priced from $106 to $261 for the box and a pre-paid shipping label.

Laminated Paperboard

This composite material is used for cake trays, food packaging, and drink cups. The paperboard is coated with plastic or other material and contains chemical resins that may contaminate a recycling batch. It’s wise to check with your local recycling program to find out if they accept this material to avoid contaminating your recyclables.

One way to identify laminated paperboard is to try to scratch it. For example, if you scratch the liner of a cup and find no material under your fingernail, it can likely be recycled. Wax coatings, which do leave a residue under the nail when scratched, cannot be recycled.

Generally speaking, only dry food packaging made with laminated paperboard is recyclable. The North American Packaging Association has introduced a Paperboard Packaging Recycling label for use on dry packaging items that can be a useful guide. However, it is best to check with your local recycling program to determine if they can accept laminated paperboard.

The North American Packaging Association Paperboard Packaging Recycling label
The North American Packaging Association Paperboard Packaging Recycling label is a helpful private label but is not required by law.

Wet-strength paperboard used in frozen food packaging is not widely recycled, though repulping technology — grinding and mixing the paper with chemicals that separate the plastic coating from the cellulose fibers — is advancing. TerraCycle offers a Laminated Paper Packaging Zero Waste Box, priced from $106 to $261 for the box and a prepaid shipping label.

Glossed Cardboard

This material is a form of paperboard with a smooth or shiny surface that adds little to no strength to the packaging. Many consumer goods, such as toothpaste and hair care products, come in glossed cardboard packaging that is easily recycled if it isn’t embellished with foil, glitter, or other materials. Most curbside programs and transfer stations accept glossed cardboard.

Composite Paper Packaging Recycling Preparation

If you have determined that your recycling program or local transfer station can process a composite paper product, take these steps to ensure it gets recycled.

  1. Be sure that it is clean and dry before putting it into your bin. Food contamination is a frequent issue with recyclable materials. Food residue, oil, or grease can ruin a whole load of recycling.
  2. Before you recycle a package, flatten it to save space. This helps your hauler fit more material into the truck, thereby reducing the number of trips it must make to the transfer station, and conserving fuel.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I tell if a paper product is lined with plastic?

Look for a coating inside or outside the material that has a shine to it; paperboard and cardboard are not naturally shiny. You can also try to tear the material to see if it has a lining.

How can I tell if paper packaging is coated with wax?

The most straightforward test for a wax coating is to try to scratch it. If residue comes off, it is likely to be coated with wax.

Do I have to throw away plastic-lined or wax-coated paper products?

Check with your local municipality to see if they can process these items. The technology is available, but most recycling plants are not equipped to deal with plastic- and wax-coated paper products.

What should I do if my recycling program doesn’t accept composite paper packaging?

If your local program doesn’t accept these composite packaging items, do not put them in your recycling bin. If possible, consider getting together a group of friends and neighbors to purchase a TerraCycle laminated paper Zero Waste Box. Also, let community leaders know that you want local recycling options for these materials. In the meantime, precycle when you shop by avoiding items in packaging that you know you can’t recycle.

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