18 June 2014
As the Director of Environment and Government Affairs of Tetra Pak, I dedicate a substantial amount of time addressing stakeholders' skepticism around carton recyclability. Here I have gathered the most frequently referenced myths surrounding carton recycling in an effort to dispel them.

Myth 1: If milk or juice cartons are not accepted at bottle and can depots, they are not recyclable.
Beverage container deposit systems in Canada have existed since the late 1970s and over these past four decades, these systems have become second nature for many Canadian consumers. They are accustomed to the pattern of purchasing a product, paying the deposit and the handling fee, and returning the empty bottle or can to the depot to reclaim their deposit. In a number of provinces, beverage container deposit laws do not exist and consumers can conveniently put empty beverage containers including milk and juice boxes into their blue box for curbside collection. In either of these situations, beverage cartons are recyclable. In Canada, all of the provincial beverage container deposit programs include cartons. In fact, according to the Carton Council of Canada, more than 95% of Canadians can recycle their beverage cartons either by returning their empty containers to depots and collecting their deposit refund or by recycling their empty containers in their household blue box.

Myth 2: Cartons are composed of multiple materials, so they must be hard to recycle.
Cartons are multi-layer packages. Tetra Pak’s cartons are made, on average, of 74% paperboard, 22% polyethylene and 4% aluminum. The recycling process for this type of package is surprisingly simple. Once collected, sorted and baled, they are sent to a paper mill. The fibre is extracted from cartons and turned into pulp by mixing cartons with water in a hydrapulper (centrifugation in water, which can be compared to a household blender). Some recyclers also use the separated poly/aluminum as feedstock. For example, in Brazil it is used to make roofing tiles while others use it as fuel to power their facility.

Myth 3: Cartons have a wax coating which makes them difficult to recycle them.
The first point to clarify is that cartons don’t have a wax coating. What you may think is wax on a carton is actually a thin layer of polyethylene, used to protect the paperboard against moisture. With respect to pulp and paper reprocessing, wax is considered a contaminant and hampers the recyclers’ ability to extract valuable fibres. As I mentioned in Myth 2, cartons are not difficult to recycle as long as the right systems are in place to do so.

Myth 4: In a community with two stream recycling systems, cartons should be placed in the paper stream since they are mostly made of paper.
With two-stream recycling systems, residents must separate their paper from their containers and when it comes to cartons, confusion may still persist as to which stream they should be placed into.
Post-consumer cartons should typically be put into the container stream along with plastic bottles and cans however, individual municipal recycling program guidelines should be followed at all times.

When post-consumer cartons end up in the paper stream and are blended with newspaper, residential mixed paper (RMP) or other fibre grades, they still get recycled to a large extent.

The North American demand for "carton" grade fibre is growing at an exponential rate; therefore when placed into the container stream and separated into its own specific grade at sorting facilities, its value is maximized. 

Myth 5: There are no carton recyclers in Canada, therefore cartons are not recyclable.
We believe that strong North American markets coupled with international demand, provides better opportunities for recycling operators, brokers and other participants in the recycling value chain. This is not specific to carton recycling as it is a commonly accepted practice for many other commodities.

Export markets for post-consumer fibre have existed for more than 30 years, with mills that employ unrivalled state-of-the-art technology. Leading the efforts of the Carton Council, Tetra Pak along with other carton manufacturers collaborate with some 140 mills internationally and there continues to be a strong demand for cartons from export markets in Europe and the Pacific Rim.

The Carton Council is working with North American paper mills to increase the number of mills that will accept cartons for recycling and so far, seven more mills have been added across North America. More are expected to come on-stream to recycle cartons over the coming years.

Paper mills view cartons as a valuable source of fibre because they offer high quality, virgin, bleached long fibre that can be used in several applications including tissue, towelling product, de-inked pulp and green building products such as wallboard. As volumes of office paper continue to decline, the demand for the long, virgin fibres available from cartons is increasing and impacting its overall market value. Commodity pricing for used cartons has actually increased over time.

Elisabeth Comere

Elisabeth Comere is director of environment and government affairs for Tetra Pak U.S. & Canada. She is charged with advancing the company's commitment to sustainability, and overseeing numerous industry and customer packaging sustainability initiatives.
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