Cartons are made of plastic, cardboard, and aluminum, which are each individually recyclable materials. However, cartons cannot be recycled in the most common recycling facilities. Let’s take a look at why.
Benefits of cartons
Carton materials are sandwiched together to make a structurally sound package that is impermeable to water, oxygen, and light. These properties make for optimum packaging of sensitive contents, such as juice and milk. Cartons are lightweight packaging compared to other options, such as glass. Plastic is also lightweight but cartons have the advantage still of being able to be shaped into rectangles, which makes them more space efficient when packed together.
Some cartons, such as those manufactured by Tetra Pak, are constructed in a way that takes advantage of the benefits of cartons—lightweight, rectangular, and impermeable to multiple spoiling agents—but also allows contents to be hermetically sealed. Hermetic sealing means that the products have been sterilized to remove nearly all pathogens and points of failure are enforced so that products are now shelf-stable without refrigeration.
As you might think, cartons can be recycled. Cartons are split into their components: wood pulp, plastic polymer, and aluminum (or just wood pulp and a polymer/aluminum composite). However, globally, only 150 recycling plants have the infrastructure to handle carton recycling. Special equipment is needed to tackle separation of the carton materials. Check the Carton Council to see if carton recycling is available in your area. Unfortunately, my area is not taking cartons yet for recycling.
Tetra Pak realizes the issue with carton recycling. In their published sustainability plan, they outline goals and progress towards increased carton recycling, which is actually outside the scope of their operation. Tetra Pak has a goal of reaching a 40% recycling rate for their products by 2020; to reach it, they must triple the amount of product currently recycled. In addition to improving recyclability on the product end, Tetra Pak has committed to working through the parties involved in the entire product life cycle, such as product distributors, municipal governments, and recycled commodity buyers.
The sustainability bottom line
Are cartons an environmentally friendly packaging option? If you look only at the availability of recycling, you might think that cartons are wasteful. However, cartons make transportation more efficient because they are lightweight, pack together tightly, and don’t require refrigeration for otherwise perishable items. Thus, cartons allow for savings in energy used to transport, and therefore cause less carbon emissions. In places where recycling is available, which is most major cities, cartons are an excellent packaging option and are a good option even when recycling isn’t available.