What is in this article?:
- Thinking Inside the Box: The State of Carton Recycling
- Carton Content
Thanks to deliberate efforts by producers, carton recycling has burgeoned in recent years, but still has a ways to go.
You might not notice them in your refrigerator. They represent less than 1 percent of the waste stream. But beverage carton recycling is hot.
In 2009 only 18 percent of U.S. households had access to recycling of cartons, those plastic-lined paperboard containers used for milk, juice, soups, wines and a few other consumables. That year four packaging companies formed the Carton Council to develop a strategy to jumpstart recycling of the product. Two years later 37 percent, or roughly 40 million households, have access to carton recycling. The council expects that rate to expand at a healthy clip. Waste Management Inc. and Tropicana Products Inc. have worked with the council and large metropolises like Los Angeles (July) and Dallas (September) recently added the carton recycling option.
“We love the program and we’re excited about another product we can take from the black (refuse) bin,” says Alex Helou, assistant director for the Bureau of Sanitation in Los Angeles.
Box and Keys
In 2008 Tetra Pak Inc. and other packaging companies saw that carton recycling was well entrenched around the world but dormant in the United States. “For whatever reason the (United States) was lagging behind the global trend,” says Jeff Fielkow, who was vice president of recycling and sustainability with Tetra Pak Inc. until November, when he joined ReCommunity Recycling as executive vice president, growth and development. Fielkow says the packaging companies concluded, “We know we can do better on our recycling rate. Let’s identify and remove the barriers.”
The group — Elopak, Evergreen Packaging, SIG Combibloc and Tetra Pak with paper product maker Weyerhaeuser Co. as an associate member — formed the Carton Council. Consumers and retailers were increasingly emphasizing recycling, and the carton market was growing. “The timing was perfect,” Fielkow says.
Fielkow, as vice president for recycling with the council, developed a strategic model that could be replicated in a range of situations. He determined that one of the problems was that the recycling industry was operating under a lot of misinformation when it came to the carton. “Most of the recycling industry wrongly thought that it wasn’t recyclable because it was a bi-material product,” he says. Council members worked with recyclers to demonstrate how cartons can be collected, processed and even more importantly, how they can be marketed.
Fielkow determined one key was to make carton recycling more accessible to customers. Another key was to develop an efficient way to sort the material. The council helped develop appropriate infrastructure and made investments where applicable.
The third key identified by Fielkow was to develop good domestic mill sources, since fiber is the key material that comes from carton recycling. There was one mill customer for cartons when the council started; there are nine now.
The final key was communication. “Once the infrastructure is there, that we continually make carton recycling top of mind,” Fielkow says.
And the council stressed more than just carton recycling. “When we invest in carton recycling it tends to help all of recycling,” he says. “Diverting from the landfill is the ultimate goal.”