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Cartons: Why are these composites so tricky to recycle?

Image Adapted From The Carton Council

The process of recycling our paper and plastic materials is familiar to most of us. But what about their composite counterpart, the carton?

We know cartons as the containers for our refrigerated milk and juice. And yes (for the sake of sanity), when we say “carton”, we mean “drinks cartons”, not “egg cartons”, “ice-cream pints/tubs”, or “card boxes”.

The instantly recognisable drinks carton design, which is most often found on our shelves today, was first invented in 1961 by the founder of Tetra Pak. At the time, it was nothing short of a revolution for supermarkets and their supply chains. They enabled storage without refrigeration and were far lighter and also easier to stack than glass-bottled alternatives. This means that fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced since cartons can be shipped using fewer trucks.

Recycle Now: How Paper From Cartons Is Recycled – Sorted, Pulped, and Dried.

There are two kinds of Tetra Pak. There’s the shelf-stable “aseptic”, a rectangular box with folds on the top that might remind you of a soup, long-life milk or wine carton—the kind you’d usually put in the cupboard. And there’s the refrigerated “gable-top”, often found holding fresh milk, cream, or egg substitutes— the type that you’d usually put in the fridge.

Refrigerated vs Shelf-stable. Photo: Carton Council

What Are They Made Of?⁣

Cartons that you might see on the shelves today are mainly paper-based. Both carton types contain a layer of plastic coating, but aseptic cartons also include aluminium to ensure that the contents stay fresh for longer. And whilst all of these materials themselves are in theory recyclable, the process of bonding them together can make them difficult to separate and process.

Commonly Confused About Cartons

Cartons are not recyclable: False.

Cartons are, in theory, recyclable as they are made mostly from paper. There is also a reasonable demand to make old cartons into new products.

The Carton Council is a group of manufacturers that have joined forces to increase the accessibility of carton recycling in the United States. To date, the availability of carton recycling has increased by over 20% in the past 10 years. In the United Kingdom, around 65 per cent of households have access to carton recycling from the curbside.

You can tell if a carton is recyclable where you live just by looking for a symbol: False.

In January 2017, carton recycling in the US passed the official threshold that allowed food and beverage cartons to display the “Please Recycle” logo. In the UK, cartons can feature the ‘widely recycled’ symbol. However, try to remember that just because these cartons are, in theory, ‘recyclable’ doesn’t mean that they can be recycled where you live.

Don’t wish-cycle: putting something in the recycling and assuming it will be recycled. This is one of the biggest causes of contamination in recycling streams today. ⁣

How Are Cartons Recycled?

The paper from cartons can be sorted and pulped down to be made into other paper products such as tubes, tissue, paper towels, and office paper. While the aluminum and plastic mixture, called “polyaluminum” is chemically bound together, so can only be downcycled into single-use items — like car floor mats, pens, and flooring/decking.

Some newer domestic recyclers even use the entire carton to produce environmentally friendly building materials.

What You Need To Know:

  • It’s easy to see if you can recycle cartons wherever you live. Just scan the barcode with the Scrapp App and we’ll reward you with Scrapp Points each time you do!
  • To add a new carton to our library, simply assign it as a carton, pick ‘gable top’ or ‘flat top (aseptic)’ and check to see if it’s been inputted correctly.
  • If it’s a carton with a lid or cap, be sure to add the ‘lid/cap’ component. You can also add any peel-off lids, tabs, or films (‘peel-off lids’) and these can be assigned as ‘mixed plastic’ material type.
  • Try to remove any straws, peel-off lids, or any other small and non-recyclable components that come with your carton. These can be marked as additional components but should always go in your general waste bin.
  • Empty your cartons before recycling them. A quick rinse is not a must but will help reduce potential odour or pest issues during the rest of the recycling process.
  • According to the Recycling Council, “It is not necessary to flatten your cartons, and, in fact, it can slow the recycling process.”
  • Assume cartons should not be placed in dedicated paper and card recycling bins unless told otherwise.
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