The Shell Game of Carton Recycling

I’m excited. I finally found a place I can buy milk in returnable, refillable bottles. No longer do I have to worry that my milk contains synthetic chemicals leached from the container’s coating, and neither do I have to agonize about where that container will end up after I’m done using it.

Is it expensive? Yes and no. My new milk is half the price of supermarket milk. But… I have to drive 25 minutes to buy it at the actual dairy, so I figure between the time and gas involved, I’m not actually saving too much.

Me? Skeptical?

I first started looking hard at cartons way back in 2020 during our Year of No Garbage. I learned that cartons— whether shelf-stable “aseptic” such as those used for juice or soup, or refrigerated “gable-top” which are used for things like milk and cream— are all made with multi-layers. Multi-layer packaging is made with plastic and paper, and sometimes aluminum, all scientifically smooshed together in micro-thin layers that are difficult to separate for recycling.

Back then I discovered the Carton Council, an industry organization whose whole mission in life is to promote carton recycling. According to the Carton Council’s website, carton recycling is  now available to more than half of U.S. households. But if you don’t have access to a single stream recycling service that accepts cartons, the Carton Council advises that you collect and mail them to places like Denver or Omaha. Back in 2020 I was excited about this news.

My new milk. When I was a kid milk in glass bottles was left in a box on our doorstep. Also there were dinosaurs

Since then, I’ve become more skeptical.

The question we must ask ourselves is: does collection equal recycling? Unfortunately, the four global carton manufacturers who teamed up to form the Carton Council, (Elopak, Evergreen Packaging, SIG and Tetra Pak) all stand to benefit from a perception of cartons being recyclable, whether it is true or not.

So what’s really happening?

Although you’d never know it from their website, it turns out that the Carton Council itself doesn’t actually recycle anything. Instead, in a slide presentation I dug up online, they describe themselves itself as a “matchmaker” between sorting facilities and the paper mills who can separate the materials out for reuse. Which is to say, the Carton Council acts as a go-between. The Carton Council is evasive on their website on the question of how many places are actually doing the work of separating micro-layers of paper, plastic, and aluminum, so I e-mailed them to find out more.

The Carton Council is made up of four major carton producing companies

Interestingly, the response came not from the Carton Council, but from a representative at Hill and Knowlton Strategies, which is a public relations firm. I’d never heard of HKS, but this firm has a very long history. Long enough to include representing some very controversial clients, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in an aggressive anti-abortion campaign, the Church of Scientology, and countries charged with human rights abuses. Oh, and the tobacco industry in the 1950s and 1960s.

But I digress. I appreciated the response, but I still didn’t get much of a straight answer. The representative mentioned Great Lakes Tissue in Michigan and Sustana Fiber in Wisconsin, and then alluded to “manufacturing facilities in Iowa and Connecticut” without specificity.

Why does the Carton Council advise mailing cartons to Colorado and Nebraska when there are no carton recycling facilities in those states?

A Carton Council map I found online showed only four carton recycling locations in the United States: and the PR rep’s email seemed to confirm this. But when folks mail their cartons in they aren’t going to those locations; they are going to completely different states.  Are we seriously going to encourage people to mail their cartons across the country and then have them put on trucks to be hauled somewhere else entirely? Or— and here’s where I start questioning everything— is recycling even happening at all?

Remember: recycling isn’t the Carton Council’s job. The Carton Council’s job is to get everyone to feel good about buying products in cartons. If they really cared about recycling, I think they’d share more on their website about it, things like: How many tons of cartons get recycled annually? And, of the cartons produced annually, what percentage is it?

In response to these questions the PR rep said he did not know the number of tons of cartons produced annually. And yet – through ESP, apparently— they estimate the recycling rate for cartons to be 20 percent. Of course, he could have said 80 percent or 5 percent and no one could contradict him because we aren’t being given any actual figures.

Lastly, even if 20 percent of cartons are being recycled, I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a good thing. According the the Carton Council, paper mills use a hydro-pulper to separate out the paper content of cartons. And guess what they generally do with the aluminum and plastic? They “generate energy from it,” which is to say they burn it.

Burning plastic has no place in recycling.

Cartons are miracles of packaging science, but so many layers makes recycling them tricky business and not many places do it

Unfortunately, there is no recycling sheriff. There is no third-party verification system, no one checking up on industry organizations­— and their PR firms— to make their claims match the reality. The closest thing we have to regulation are the FTC’s Green Guides which are not law, but a set of recommendations as to what environmental claims companies can reasonably make.

I hate to be paranoid, but when it comes to difficult-to-recycle materials we all need to be far more suspicious.  Too much “recycling” is ending up burned, buried, strangling sea life, or clogging the landscapes of impoverished countries around the world. If it can’t be verified independently, you can’t trust that it actually exists. On top of that, “recycling” is a term being used these days to describe some very dodgy practices, including burning plastic.

The upshot? I’d love to tell you that cartons are being recycled— and that this is a great thing we should all support— but the information out there does not convince me this is so. Instead, I encourage everyone to seek out truly recyclable alternatives when possible. When faced with a carton? I’d accept that this is a problem our society has yet to solve and put it where it will do the least amount of damage: the trash. This means it will go to the landfill, where it will wait for our society to come to its senses and figure out how to deal with the chemical mess we’ve made.

P.S. A friend passed along this link to a directory of dairies selling milk in glass bottles across the US:

2 thoughts on “The Shell Game of Carton Recycling

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