This continuing series will explore environmental responsibility with sustainability-minded organizations across the economy.
This conversation starts with the strategy to grow carton recycling, and touches on post-consumer cartons as a valuable commodity, sustainability in the carton industry, even robotics. Scott is also Circular Economy Expert for the U.S. and Canada at Tetra Pak, a world leader in packaging and food processing.
The Carton Council is all about growing carton recycling
- Formed in 2009 by four leading carton manufacturers: Elopak, Evergreen Packaging, SIG Combibloc, and Tetra Pak.
- By promoting recycling technology and local collection programs, and growing awareness that cartons are recyclable, Carton Council works to limit the number of cartons that become landfill or end up as litter.
- Focus on gable top cartons (for milk, cream, juice and other refrigerated liquids) and aseptic cartons (for soup, broth, beans, wine and various foods not refrigerated in stores).
How did the Carton Council help to more than triple access to carton recycling, from 18% of American households ten years ago to 62% today?
The Carton Council came together in 2009 to develop a strategy to expand carton recycling across the four main links in the carton recycling value chain:
- End markets: We started by securing domestic and export end markets – recycled fiber manufacturers – for food and beverage cartons collected in the U.S., ensuring there were enough end markets to capture the growth of carton recycling.
- Materials Recovery Facilities: The Carton Council worked with materials recovery facilities (MRFs) to make sure they were able to sort cartons efficiently, and letting them know that end markets were available. We also made sorting grants available so facilities could buy equipment.
- Municipalities: We’d meet with a city like Chicago and say, ‘your local MRF now accepts cartons, so let’s make sure your community knows they can go into recycling bins, and cartons are included in your communications.’
- Consumer education and awareness: The last piece was continuing to get the word out, and we provided grants for awareness campaigns that included billboards, bus panels, and other advertising in major cities.
When did the universal recycling logo and ‘please recycle’ message begin appearing on cartons?
Once carton recycling became available to 60% of American households in 2017, all gable top and aseptic cartons could carry the universal recycling logo, indicating they are recyclable, in line with the Federal Trade Commission Green Guides. The logo and ‘please recycle’ message on cartons communicates directly with consumers. This logo helps reinforce that cartons are a mainstream recyclable package.
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle® label program, which follows FTC guidelines, is another great communications tool used by a lot of brands to help educate consumers and encourage recycling.
Is the public clear about the difference between recyclable and recycled?
For a long time, I do not think all brand owners were clear on the difference between recyclable and recycled. Consequently, any confusion among the public was to be expected. Ten or even five years ago, I do not think most people were aware of what was recyclable and how it was recycled into new products. But there continues to be more education to help clear up any confusion, with a focus for consumers to look both at the packaging itself, and to familiarize themselves with their local recycling program.
With the increase in access, is actual carton recycling on the rise?
Yes. A Carton Council survey of people with curbside recycling reported that in 2017, 79% of respondents recycled cartons (61% always + 18% occasionally), up from 71% in 2015 (50% always + 21% occasionally). This shows people want to recycle cartons much as they do plastic bottles and aluminum cans (recycled by 90% and 85% of respondents, respectively, in 2017).
What happens to gable top and aseptic cartons from recycling bins?
The two types of recovered cartons are sorted and baled together by MRFs into a commodity grade called PSI #52, used by companies like Sustana Fiber as a raw material to make post-consumer recycled fiber for use in new paper products, like paper cups, printing and writing papers, tissue and food-grade packaging. Other manufacturers use this carton grade in recycled building materials like wallboard and ceiling tiles.
Why is a standard grade for recovered cartons important?
Grade #52 means MRFs and recycled fiber processors speak the same language. It’s similar to the recycled paper industry, where commodity grades like OCC (old corrugated containers) have specifications understood by producers and purchasers.
The Paper Stock Industry (PSI) granted Grade #52 in 2011, to reflect demand and the fact that cartons have a higher value when sorted together rather than included with mixed paper. When we provide grants to MRFs, one of the requirements is that they sort them into Grade #52.
How are robotics and artificial intelligence improving carton recycling?
The Carton Council recently partnered with Single Stream Recyclers, a MRF in Sarasota, Florida, to provide a grant for an artificial intelligence (AI) robot from AMP Robotics that sorts gable top and aseptic cartons. The robot allows cartons to be sorted into Grade #52 bales more efficiently. This was the first recycling robot in Florida and received some great newspaper and TV coverage.
We also funded pioneering robotics installations earlier at two other MRFs, Alpine Waste & Recycling in Denver, Colorado, and Dem-Con in Minneapolis, Minnesota. These projects introduced sorting robots in the recycling industry.
AI helps these sorting robots learn from one other – when one learns to identify more shapes, sizes and brands, this intelligence is shared with the other robots, increasing overall speed and efficiency.
What recent environmental and social trends are changing attitudes about recycling?
Negative news stories about China no longer accepting many recycled materials have put recycling more in the public eye. With this in mind, the Carton Council just released results of a national survey reporting that 85% of respondents are continuing to recycle even though only 35% believe materials actually get recycled. The good news is people are still recycling despite their confusion!
How can you make people confident their recyclables are being recycled?
The Carton Council and the entire recycling industry must show that recycling is still important and that what goes into the recycling bin goes on to have new uses, becoming new products. Otherwise, scepticism will grow.
We partner with companies like Sustana Fiber to spread that message. Sustana tells the carton recycling story well, so the Carton Council takes every opportunity to leverage that. Sustana also does a great job of making recycling tangible, showing how everyday products like sorted office papers and coffee cups can be recycled into new post-consumer recycled paper products.
How does the carton industry measure up to the growing demand for sustainable products?
The Carton Council focuses on recycling to keep cartons from ending up in landfills so I can’t speak directly to your question. I will add that cartons are made from high-quality fiber and are highly sustainable. The fiber is a renewable and recyclable material with a very competitive carbon emissions profile. Cartons are light and compact, and consumers generally believe them to be recyclable.
Growing recycling is the Carton Council’s main focus, making it a green champion by definition: How can it become even greener?
We can have a larger impact by making sure a rising recycling tide lifts all boats. While we focus on improving carton recycling, we also work other recycling stakeholders to help improve recycling broadly. These include: The Recycling Partnership, Keep America Beautiful, AMERIPEN, and state recycling organizations, among others. If recycling is stronger, carton recycling will be stronger.