Frequently Answered Questions

Debunking myths and answering your questions about food and beverage cartons

About Cartons

Yes, food and beverage cartons are recyclable. They can be transformed into new paper products such as tissue, toweling, printing, and writing paper and packaging. There are also full carton recycling facilities that use the entire cartons to produce sturdy, sustainable building materials, such as roof cover board and wall board. Their process utilizes zero chemicals or water, creating products that can be utilized for several decades. Both methods for recycling cartons contribute to a circular economy.

No, cartons do not contain wax, which could make them impossible to recycle. What some mistakenly refer to as wax is the polyethylene (plastic) coating, which separates easily in the recycling process. Some food and beverage cartons once contained a waxy coating, but cartons have not been produced with wax since the early 1960s.

Each brand determines which messaging goes on their packages, but the Carton Council highly encourages brands to add the “Please Recycle” logo to all food and beverage carton packaging because it plays a significant role in ensuring cartons make it into the recycling stream. Research by the Carton Council shows that more than half of consumers (55%) look to the product packaging first to determine if an item is recyclable, and 74% would assume a package is not recyclable if it does not contain a recycling logo.

Carton Recycling Access and Rates

The recycling rate is how many cartons are recycled – or transformed into new products – while the access rate is how many households have access – or the ability to – recycle cartons through their local curbside or drop off recycling programs.

62% of households in the U.S. have access to carton recycling. Access to food and beverage carton recycling in Canada is approximately 97%.

The recycling rate for cartons in the U.S. is 20%. The recycling rate for cartons in Canada is 57%.

According to the Federal Trade Commission Green Guides, products with a national household access to recycling rate of 60% or higher can carry the standard “Please Recycle” logo. Companies and brands looking to add the logo to their packaging can find more information here.

When the Carton Council was founded in 2009, household access in the U.S. was 18%. Today, it is 62%, more than tripling the number of households that can recycle their cartons. Currently 78.7 million U.S. households can recycle their cartons through their local curbside and drop-off recycling programs. During the same time frame, the number of states with household access has expanded from 24 to 49 states. Furthermore, the recycling rate for cartons in the U.S. has increased from 6% to 20%. Finally, growth of end markets for Grade #52 has improved from one recycling facility to six recycling facilities in North America. And we are not done. The Carton Council continues to work hard to increase access, as well the recycling rate of cartons.

Carton Recycling Process

No, cartons do not have to be recycled via special programs.

Food and beverage cartons can be recycled through local residential recycling programs in more than 62% of U.S. households. This means cartons can carry the standard “Please Recycle” logo on-pack and are considered a mainstream recyclable commodity according to the Federal Trade Commission Green Guidelines

Put the cap back on or push the straw back into the carton to make sure they follow the same recycling process as cartons and don’t end up in the landfill or as litter.

Yes, cartons are valuable in the recycling stream, and there are end markets for recycled cartons.

Like other materials, food and beverage cartons are sorted and baled at materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and then shipped to recyclers. Cartons even have their own ISRI Paper Stock Industry (PSI) scrap specification: Grade #52

No, the multi-layer or multi-material structure of cartons does not prevent them from being recycled.

While cartons are made up of multiple layers, these layers do not prevent them from being recycled. The layers can be separated during the recycling process if needed, or the entire carton can be shredded – caps, straws and all – to create sustainable building materials.

Recovered fiber mills are fully equipped to recycle multilayer cartons, where fiber is separated from polyethylene and aluminum, or PolyAl, in a hydrapulper. The fiber is used to make new paper products and the PolyAl can be used to generate energy or become binding. At a full carton recycling facility, the entire carton is used to make high-quality, sustainable building materials, such as wallboard, roof cover board and ceiling tiles.

They can be. At paper mills, the layers in cartons are broken down during the recycling process. The paper is used to make new paper products and the small amount of polyethylene and aluminum, or PolyAl, left over can be used in different ways. Some mills use the material for generating energy, while others sell it to plastic manufacturers that use it for wood plastic laminates. Other solutions for the leftover materials are in development. aluminum/plastic can be used to generate energy.

In the case of building materials, the whole carton is used–caps, straws and all. The PolyAl acts as the glue that holds the boards together while the fiber provides strength. This process works without needing any water glue or chemicals.

A MRF is a facility where cartons and other recyclable materials collected from consumers are hauled to be sorted into different grades, baled, and sent on for recycling.

A recycler takes the baled material and transforms it into new products. In the case of cartons, this can be either a paper mill or a full carton recycling facility, where cartons are turned into new paper products and building materials.

There are six facilities in North America that actively transform Grade #52 cartons into new products:

  • Continuus Materials (U.S.)
  • Kelly Green Products (U.S.)
  • Kimberly-Clark de Mexico Ecatepc (Mexico)
  • Sustana Fiber (U.S.)
  • Sustana Fiber, Quebec (Canada)
  • Tissue Depot (U.S.)

Additionally, some recovered fiber mills in the U.S. use cartons that are sorted into mixed paper (Grade #54).

As is common for all recyclable materials, cartons can also be recycled via overseas export markets, including:

  • India
  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • Thailand

About Carton Council

The Carton Council is composed of four leading carton manufacturers, Elopak, Pactiv Evergreen, SIG and Tetra Pak.

The Carton Council is funded by four leading carton manufacturers, Elopak, Pactiv Evergreen, SIG and Tetra Pak. Their contributions support all Carton Council efforts to increase carton recycling.

The Carton Council works across the recycling value chain to increase recycling rates:

  • Recycling Markets We can help connect recycling markets with MRFs to ensure they have access to Grade #52 cartons. We also offer equipment grants to help recycling markets process more cartons.
  • MRFs – We work with MRFs to help them efficiently sort cartons so they can accept them from the communities they serve. We offer grants for equipment like optical sorters, robots, bunkers and more.We can also connect MRFs with end markets that purchase cartons
  • Recycling Programs and Communities – We work with a variety of programs to help educate consumers on the ability to recycle cartons. This often includes educational grants.
  • Schools – We work with schools to establish carton recycling programs and to enhance existing recycling programs. This includes providing guidance and best practices as well as grants for materials like recycling containers.

The Carton Council also conducts a variety of research to help better understand carton recycling. This includes MRF surveys to learn how cartons go through the sorting stream, consumer research to understand awareness and perceived barriers to recycling and even investigating various policy options to better understand which ones can help communities.

The Carton Council has set a goal to increase the carton recycling rate to 25% by 2025.