Drink carton recycling

We buy  a lot of beverages that come in cardboard containers. For some reason milk alternatives (soy, hemp, almond, rice, etc.) rarely come in plastic or glass like cow milk does, and instead come in boxes similar to those used for juice. At our previous residence they took these types of boxes along with the rest of the recycling, but when we moved here just a few miles away, to my surprise they did not.

Not wanting to just throw the containers away, I collected them and hauled them to the local recycling center, figuring our city just didn’t want to handle them curbside. Despite the fact that the bin says right on it not to throw in containers that are coated, lined, etc. one of the workers told me that it was OK to put them in there. For over a year I’d been hauling the containers there on a regular basis and dumping them in the bin, somewhat stealthily at times since I still wasn’t sure if they belonged in there or not.

After doing some research into shelf stable products recently, I’ve found that they most definitely do not belong in with the rest of the cardboard! The boxes used for liquids are also known as aseptics. (Some people call them Tetra Paks, as that’s the most recognizable brand.) Aseptics are made from several layers of different materials – including paper, plastics and metals – and are thus somewhat harder to recycle.  See diagram.

Aseptic containers, and other coated or lined containers like those used for juice,  must go through a completely different processing method called hydrapulping. Hydrapulping facilities are rare and thus the packages are rarely recycled. My main go-to for locating recycling facilities, earth911.org, shows no place in our state that will take these containers. Only 26 U.S. states have access to a facility that can handle them.

As of last week I started throwing the containers away and I cannot believe how much our trash load has increased as a result! I really, really don’t want to send them to the landfill but feel I don’t have a choice. I would avoid buying those boxes outright if possible, but some of the products we purchase don’t come any other way and are staples in our diet.

There are efforts underway to expand recycling for these types of containers. The Carton Council and four leading carton manufacturers have teamed up to improve U.S. availability. Last year Tropicana joined forces with Waste Management to increase the recycling opportunities for their boxes. I’m hopeful that it will happen quickly so we’ll soon have a proper way to recycle our drink containers.  Countries like Canada and Germany are already doing it well; there’s no reason we can’t too.