With the recycling rate at 16 percent for cartons, which has increased 6 percent from 2013, the Carton Council is committed to continuing to drive growth of the carton recycling rate through a comprehensive strategy that touches the entire recycling chain as well as strong partnerships and collaborations. Jason Pelz, Vice President of Recycling Projects for the Carton Council of North America and the Circular Economy for Tetra Pak, discusses the organization’s progress and future goals.
How did the Carton Council develop? Who was involved? The Carton Council was founded in 2009 by Elopak, SIG Combibloc, Evergreen Packaging and Tetra Pak who came together to build an infrastructure for carton recycling in the U.S. Many of those companies individually were already concerned about recycling post-consumer cartons, but recognized that if they joined forces, they would be more effective. The ultimate goal is to prevent any food and beverage cartons from going into landfills or worse, becoming litter. Recognizing that as a goal and knowing that cartons contain high-quality recyclable materials, the Carton Council worked backwards, first ensuring there were end markets available, that the materials recovery facilities (MRFs) were equipped and knowledgeable on how to best capture the cartons and encouraging communities to include food and beverage cartons into their recycling programs, as well as understanding the need to educate their residents to get them involved.
What kind of education materials and outlets does the Carton Council offer? The Carton Council has toolkits for MRFs and community recycling coordinators, as well as schools. It is really about ensuring residents know what food and beverage cartons are, that they can be recycled and how to recycle them. When carton recycling is added to a community recycling program, the Carton Council encourages that community to educate its residents or in some cases, will go in and conduct an education campaign aimed at that community. The organization also conducts consumer research every two years, which helps identify target markets that have high support for recycling but aren’t necessarily aware of carton recycling.
A lot of cartons are consumed in schools, especially at the elementary level. There are a couple of different paths to start a school carton recycling program. This is something that the community recycling coordinator can try to get started or plant the seed with the school administrator or point of contact, like an empowered or engaged teacher, parent, volunteer or student. The Carton Council has school toolkits to help with the logistics of setting up the program as well as the promotion and educating the school or entire district to get it going. The Carton Council also has grants for carton recycling bins.
What are the first steps to implementing a program? The first step is to make sure that the MRF is open to accepting food and beverage cartons. The reality is that food and beverage cartons are coming into the recycling stream and if the MRFs are not sorting cartons separately, they are likely going in with mixed paper. In 2011, a few years after the Carton Council was formed, the Paper Stock Industry (PSI) granted a new commodity grade, Grade #52, for aseptic and gable top cartons. When cartons are sorted into Grade #52, they get the highest value. The Carton Council works with MRFs to help them understand that and provide them with brokers they can work with so they can get the best price for their Grade #52 cartons.
A great thing is that while so many materials have been impacted by China’s National Sword Ruling, Grade #52 cartons have not been a market for China. In fact, there are actually growing end markets with good prices right now and while it varies from region to region, the prices overall are higher for Grade #52 cartons than mixed paper. The Carton Council has experts who can go to a MRF and watch the stream, where the cartons are coming in and give MRFs advice on how they can most effectively sort the cartons into Grade #52. There are primarily three ways MRFs can sort cartons: optical sorters, human pickers and robotics. The Carton Council funded and led the first robotic pilot in the recycling industry in 2017 through a partnership with AMP Robotics and continues to support the use of AI to help sort food and beverage cartons.
The next step is through the recycling coordinator at the municipal or county level to ensure they have educated their residents once cartons are fully accepted at the MRF. The Carton Council has education materials available at CartonOpportunities.org, a website dedicated to recycling professionals and stakeholders.
Ensuring community websites are up to date and accurate is crucial to success. Recycling varies from community to community, so having the website accurately reflect food and beverage cartons as an accepted material is key. The Carton Council also has a variety of community toolkit materials, including FAQs, social media copy and graphics, bill stuffers and more. Recycling coordinators are often short-staffed without much budget for education, so that is where the Carton Council can really help to make sure their residents are aware. This can include making an announcement about the addition to the recycling program and ensuring food and beverage cartons are incorporated into their existing materials and incorporating information into social media content.
What is the most common misconception that people have about disposing of or recycling cartons? Using the term “waxy cartons.” Consumers and even community recycling websites often inaccurately describe cartons as waxy and because of the wax, believe they cannot be recycled. They will also say that the cartons are a multi-layered packaging and that is why they cannot be recycled. Both of these are inaccurate. There is no wax whatsoever in cartons. What some might think of as wax is actually a thin layer of polyethylene (plastic) that helps protect the products in the carton. There are several different multi-layered materials in the market, and the multi-layers do not prevent cartons from being recycled. In fact, when carton are used to make eco-friendly building and construction materials, those multi-layers contribute to the new product’s strength, durability and resistance to moisture.
Some of the other misconceptions are that you have to crush the cartons in order to recycle them and while it does vary slightly from facility to facility, the Carton Council conducted a MRF analysis a few years ago and learned that it’s actually most effective if residents keep cartons in their original shape. Of course, they need to be emptied of the contents, like any other recycling material in order to make sure there is not a whole bunch of fluid or product left inside. Finally, one important caveat is that if cartons are not sorted into Grade #52, they generally end up in mixed paper. There is somewhat of a misconception that if they end up in mixed paper, they are considered contamination, which is not true.
How many cartons were recycled last year? The Carton Council’s initial goal was to build an infrastructure for carton recycling with success demonstrated when 60 percent of U.S. households had access. According to the Federal Trade Commission Green Guidelines, cartons could carry the standard “Please Recycle” logo on pack after reaching the 60% milestone, indicating that carton recycling had become mainstream. Prior to that, cartons could have a recycling logo, however, it had to have a disclaimer to check with your local facilities. In January 2017, 60 percent access was achieved and access continues to grow. Without a lot of access to carton recycling, it was difficult to measure recycling rates. Now, there is nearly 63 percent access and the Carton Council is focusing on increasing carton recycling rates. Carton recycling programs exist in 49 states—the only exception is Hawaii, where recycling in general is more challenging.
Today, the recycling rate for cartons is estimated at 16 percent, which has increased 6 percent from 2013. The Carton Council is committed to continuing to drive growth of the carton recycling rate through a comprehensive strategy that touches the entire recycling chain as well as strong partnerships and collaboration. The cornerstone of this is continuing to grow household access, which has experienced a 250 percent increase since the Carton Council formed in 2009 when it was just at 18 percent.
After being sorted into Grade #52, cartons can go on to make two different types of materials. The first starts at paper mills, where the cartons go through a hydrapulper to separate out the fiber from the plastic/aluminum, where they eventually become paper towels, tissues, toilet paper, office paper, etc. The second is at a manufacturing company where the entire carton is used to make the previously mentioned eco-friendly building materials, roofing cover board and wall board, etc. In this newer technology, the cartons are shredded and then a giant press is used to heat the materials and bind them together. The properties in the carton, including the very thin plastic coating/layer and the caps, work well together with that heat to create a hard-binding property. It is a hard, strong, durable and moisture resistant construction material. It is also an eco-friendly process since they are not made with any chemicals or water. That is a growing market in the U.S.
What is coming up in the future for the Carton Council? What are you working on now? The Carton Council is excited to have a positive story to tell with growing end markets and technology for sorting cartons. For the robots that the Carton Council piloted two years ago in Colorado and Minnesota, the initial use of them was to help sort food and beverage cartons. The technology has continued to advance and now robots have been installed at other facilities across the U.S. and are sorting other things—it is a game changer in the industry. The Carton Council is looking forward to working this year to get more of these robots into facilities. It is exciting because when you think about the recycling industry, it is not always known to be on the cutting edge of technology and the use of AI is really fascinating. It takes less space than an optical sorter and is less expensive and has the possibilities for sorting different things. It is not necessarily replacing an optical sorter, but it provides a new way to sort efficiently.
There has been a lot of negative coverage in the media over the last few years primarily as fall out over China’s National Sword. Despite that, so far research does not reveal consumers have given up on recycling. This is good news. The Carton Council is really looking forward to continuing to make sure consumers as well as those in the industry, recognize that cartons are recyclable, contain valuable material that should not end up in the landfill and feel good about cartons as an eco-friendly package.
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