Milk cartons. Juice cartons. Other cartons. Are they recyclable? Are they just trash? How can they be recycled? What’s the actual recycling process? The answers to these questions actually depend on where you live and what your local recycling policies are. Why? Well, simple. Not all recycling facilities recycle milk/juice cartons. The only way to find out what your local policies are is to visit your local recycler’s website or to go to the phone and call them up, ask about their milk/juice carton policy, and hope for a comprehensible answer. But in the meantime, let’s talk about what cartons are actually made of and what’s the process to recycle these awesome, biodegradable packages.
What are they even made of?
This may come as kind of a shock, but paper milk cartons are mainly made of...well, paper. However, all cartons have a very thin layer of food-safe polyethylene plastic (also known as PET) on both sides of the paper. The colorful labeling and awesome design of some cartons are printed on the very thin outside plastic layer. Shelf-stable cartons (which are the ones that do not require any refrigeration until the seal has been broken) also have a thin layer of aluminum foil on the inside of the package.
Cartons DO NOT contain any wax at all and have not for many, many years. Cartons are designed to keep the product inside as fresh as possible and thus block out light and air that may cause the products to spoil.
So how are they recycled?
Even though not every local recycling facility accepts cartons, most do! If your local facility accepts cartons, be sure to check with them and see where they prefer to have the cartons placed (with the other paper products, with plastic products, etc). They will also let you know specifics on how to place the cartons in the bin (with/without caps, flattened, rinsed, etc).
Once the cartons are picked up from your recycling bin, the journey begins! Cartons usually are separated from other types of recyclables and are then mixed with water in a giant blender called a hydra-pulper. This giant blender separates the paper, plastic, and aluminum layers of the carton. Once this awesome separation is complete, the paper fiber is ready to be transformed into new paper products like tissues, printing paper, building materials and many others!
What happens to the plastic and aluminum components? Well, they are collected from the hydra-pulping process and given new life! The plastic, for example, is often used for shipping crates and building materials. It is sometimes combined with the aluminum components, creating a material called poly/al mix. Even though this mix as a more limited secondary use market, some mills have used it to generate energy for their facilities!
Juice and milk cartons are also perfect and handy for a number of small craft projects and uses around the home. For example, well-cleaned paper cartons make cute birdfeeders or toy boats. You can also cut the top of a carton, grab some soil and use it for starting seeds in the springtime. You could even wash them, cut them apart and use them to make small storage containers! So why limit yourself to only recycling cartons?