What Do Recycled Cartons Become?

My Plastic Free Life by Beth Terry
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Not long ago, options to recycle the cartons used for milk, juice, soup and other products were not as widespread across North America. Today, thanks largely to the work of the Carton Council, more than 60 million households and counting have access to carton recycling. Because cartons are made with a high-quality paperboard that can be used again, this is a huge step. But once you’ve done your due diligence and tossed those cartons in the recycling container, what do they become?

Tissue

Next time you reach for a tissue, consider that it may have been made from a recycled carton. Photo: Shutterstock

A Whole New World of Products
After leaving your house or local recycling drop-off point, cartons are taken to a materials recycling facility to be sorted and baled. Those bales are then shipped to paper mills, where the cartons are mixed with water and chemicals in a huge blender in order to extract the paper fiber from the plastic and aluminum. (What may look like a waxy coating on gable top and shelf-stable cartons is actually a thin layer of plastic.)

What happens next depends on both the area of the country and the mill itself. Potential new products include paper items such as tissues, office paper and napkins — which makes sense when you consider that cartons contain an average of 74 percent to 80 percent paper. That paper towel you use today may just be that orange juice carton you recycled yesterday. (OK, the process takes slightly longer than that, but you get the idea.)

In some cases, cartons may find a second purpose as green building materials such as wallboard, sheathing, ceiling tiles and backerboard.

And what about the parts of a carton that aren’t paper? The plastic and aluminum can be used in different ways such as energy generation or manufacturing of lumber board-like materials.

School cafeterias are great places to start carton recycling programs. Photo: Shutterstock

School cafeterias are great places to start carton recycling programs. Photo: Shutterstock

How You Can Help
Want to see your cartons become something cool, too? The more consumers recycle, the more mills will be able to give cartons a new lease on life.

If you have carton recycling in your area — and more than 50 percent of households do now — you can easily recycle the cartons you use. Schools are another great place to start a recycling program, as kids go through plenty of milk and juice containers. If your nearest school doesn’t already have a program, this guide will take you through the process of how to set up carton recycling and make the effort as successful as possible.

A number of companies and brands also promote carton recycling. Known as Carton Recycling Champions, this network of companies and brands produce some of your favorite food and beverage products that are packaged in cartons. Current members include Crystal Creamery, Dean Foods, Fat Tuesday, GoodBelly, Just Beverages, Kemps, Leahy-IFP, Pacific Foods, The ReWall Company, Turner Dairy Farms and WhiteWave Foods.

Still need motivation to recycle cartons? Next time you look up at the ceiling tiles in your workplace, the tissues you blow your nose with during cold season, and the paper sitting in your printer, consider that someone else’s forward thinking to recycle just may have helped create the products you’re using today.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock

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.

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Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of national and regional publications, covering everything from sustainability and health to travel and retail.

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