By Trey Granger on Oct 18, 2010

The Lowdown on Recycling Juice, Milk Cartons


When it comes to recycling, not all boxes are the same. This is not only due to the quality of the paper, but also any materials added to optimize the box for consumer use.

Tetra Pak claims that 27.1 billion of its packages were recycled worldwide in 2009. Photo: Flickr/devriesm

Take the example of gable-top cartons and aseptic containers, which you may know as milk/juice cartons and juice boxes, respectively. At first glance, these products seem destined for the paperboard recycling bin, but think about what would happen if you poured orange juice in a cereal box. These aren’t your normal paperboard boxes.

A good portion of these containers are manufactured by Tetra Pak, and they are comprised of approximately 85 percent paperboard. The boxes are also lined with low density polyethylene (LDPE, or #4 plastic) to help insulate the liquid inside, and in the case of drink boxes there is also a lining of aluminum foil.

In the case of Tetra Pak, the company used almost 77 percent less LDPE in global manufacturing in 2008 than in 1999, but this plastic lining is still present. It also needs to be removed in order for the paper to be recycled.

This isn’t to say that paperboard food boxes require no preparation for recycling. These boxes are usually coated with kaolin clay to improve the printing surface, which must also be removed.

But for milk and juice cartons it is a more difficult separation process, which may be a reason why your local recycling program won’t accept milk and juice cartons.

According to Earth911’s recycling directory, paperboard is accepted in 22 percent more curbside recycling programs than milk and juice cartons. Tetra Pak claims that 27.1 billion of its packages were recycled worldwide in 2009 (an increase of 1.5 billion over 2008), and the packaging is also compostable because of the large percentage of paper content.

In cities like Vancouver, milk and juice cartons aren’t collected at the curb but they are accepted at Return-It centers. However, the Metro Vancouver area also reported 42 million milk cartons were landfilled in 2009 as opposed to 3.5 million plastic containers, although this discrepancy may be related to the fact that consumers receive a refund for recycling beverage containers other than milk cartons.

If your local recycling program does not collect these cartons, it’s important to not include them to prevent contamination. You’ll also want to remove any straws from drink boxes and rinse/flatten cartons so they don’t start the compost process early.

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      • http://www.cartonrecycling.comandwww.recycle.com Jim Frey

        The Carton Council web site, http://www.recyclecartons.com, identifies over 1,200 US communities with over 30 million households that have access to carton recycling right now. The Carton Council’s Carton Recycling Access Campaign is actively working to add communities to this list with a goal of adding an additional 30 million households over the next five years. Contact the Carton Council via the web site for more information. Jim Frey, for the Carton Council and its members Elopak, Evergreen Packaging, SIG/SIG Combibloc and Tetra Pak.

      • Anup Jani

        Tetra pack cartons can be converted to board which is an alternative to wood and can be recycled over and over again.
        It is being done by us in India.
        Even starbucks coffee glasses can be converted to board.

      • creeping crawler

        I understand the need for recycling places for various products.

        However is it all practical? I cant see going to one place to give them my recycled items, then going to another for other recycleable stuff and another and another for something else . That would be a lot of gas/electric.
        Some places are not even on the same side of town. lots of traffic back and forth.

      • Marissa

        How about some tips for reusing these items? I’ve been saving the half gallon containers to repurpose as planters.