Sustainability and the environment often are hot-button issues. From debates over climate change to the true impact of recycling, there is much disagreement over the best solutions to these growing problems. But, from an industry standpoint, one thing has remained constant. We recognize that sustainability is key to the future of our planet, and we all must work together to instill a culture of environmentally conscious consumers and companies.
While Americans have been consistently reminded to recycle their aluminum cans, plastic bottles and paper products since recycling programs began, food and beverage cartons still are considered a newer packaging option in the U.S., even though cartons have been a popular choice for decades in other countries, particularly in Europe. In 2009, only 18 percent of U.S. households had access to carton recycling in their communities. Recognizing that growing carton recycling access was a must with the growing adoption of carton packages by consumers and brands, four carton manufacturers, Elopak, Evergreen Packaging, SIG Combibloc and Tetra Pak Inc., as well as associate member Weyerhaeuser, joined together with the mission of delivering long-term collaborative solutions to divert valuable cartons from the landfill, forming the Carton Council of North America.
As vice president of recycling projects for the Carton Council, Denton, Texas, and vice president, environment, for Tetra Pak Cluster Americas, Vernon Hills, Illinois, I have seen firsthand the work that has gone into improving carton recycling infrastructure and increasing the recycling of postconsumer cartons. Significant ground remains to be covered, but we are proud of the progress made thus far. Carton recycling access has increased 222 percent. Currently, household access to carton recycling stands at 58 percent.
WHAT MAKES A CARTON?
Cartons are among the most sustainable food and beverage packages available in the market. They’re made mainly from paper, a 100 percent renewable and recyclable material that is sourced from well-managed forests. And thanks to their lightweight and compact design, cartons have a low carbon footprint through their life cycles. These factors result in a very attractive packaging option for food and beverage producers.
Defining what makes a carton is key to understanding its benefits. Cartons are available in two main types: aseptic (shelf-stable) and gable-top (refrigerated). Aseptic cartons are found in nonrefrigerated sections of stores and are used to hold products like soup, broth, soy milk and wine. Gable-top cartons are found in the refrigerated sections of stores and are used for products like milk, juice, cream and egg substitutes.
In addition to paperboard, aseptic and gable-top cartons have thin layers of polyethylene (PE), and aseptic cartons also contain a very thin layer of aluminum to make them shelf-stable. On average, aseptic cartons are comprised of 74 percent paper, 22 percent PE and 4 percent aluminum. Gable-top cartons have an 80-20 ratio of paper to plastic.
Once cartons have been consumed and collected, two recycling options are available after they have been sorted and baled at a material recovery facility (MRF). Recovered cartons most commonly are shipped to a paper mill, where they are mixed with water in a hydrapulper to separate the paper fiber from the plastic and aluminum. The paper fiber is then ready to be used to manufacture new products, such as printing and writing paper, tissues and paper towels. The residual aluminum and plastic can be recycled into such products as ceiling tiles or wall boards, or they can be used as energy in the recovery boiler at a paper mill.
The other option is for the cartons to be shipped to a manufacturing company, such as The ReWall Co. (More on ReWall is available at www.RecyclingToday.com/article/rt0115-recovered-fiber-cartons-re cycling.) This company coverts the whole carton into green building materials, such as wall sheathing, moisture- and mold-resistant composite panels, ceiling panels, wallboard and backer board.
In addition to these sustainability benefits, cartons are appealing to brand owners because of their low package-to-product ratio. Commonly, the carton accounts for only 7 percent of the total combined weight of the product, while the carton contents account for 93 percent. In comparison, an egg shell accounts for 13 percent of the total weight of an egg, while the white and yolk account for 87 percent.
CONSUMERS LOOK FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Research reveals that American consumers are more environmentally conscious than ever before. According to a national survey commissioned by the Carton Council and conducted late last year by Research+Data Insights, headquartered in New York City, 77 percent of respondents consider the effects of their purchases on the environment along with other criteria, such as brand or price, when deciding whether to buy something.
Not only are consumers considering the environment, but they also expect brands to be involved in sustainability efforts and say that it affects their brand loyalty when they’re not. The previously mentioned research also revealed that 91 percent of U.S. adults surveyed say they expect food and beverage brands to actively help increase recycling of their packages.
When it comes to recycling, the packaging itself plays an important role in determining whether consumers considered it recyclable and whether it actually gets recycled—this is where consumers tend to look first for information about recyclability. Sixty-seven percent of U.S. adults surveyed said they would assume a package is not recyclable if there is no recycling symbol or language on it.
A few years ago, we formed the Carton Recycling Champions network to work with like-minded companies and brands that share our desire to improve recycling. Currently comprising 21 companies and brands, participants are dedicated to sustainability and carton recycling. The Carton Council provides them with information and resources to help promote carton recycling to the consumers who purchase and consume their products.
One of our champions, WhiteWave Foods, makes and sells branded plant-based foods and beverages, coffee creamers and beverages, premium dairy products and organic produce throughout North America and Europe. This company is committed to reducing its environmental footprint by selecting materials that are not only recyclable but that also are supported by recycling infrastructure downstream that it can communicate to consumers. WhiteWave is an active champion of our consumer education campaigns across the U.S., including a campaign it sponsored last year in Southern California to help get the message about carton recycling to residents.
ENSURING INFRASTRUCTURE IS IN PLACE
As research shows that consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious, and as more companies turn to cartons for their packaging, we want to ensure carton packaging is properly managed at end of life and doesn’t end up in the landfill. Last year, the Carton Council and four other industry groups—the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) and the National Association for PET Container Recourses (NAPCOR)—commissioned a study to find ways to optimize the recycling of packaging after it goes into the bin or cart. The study specifically evaluated where packages end up in a sorting facility, why packages flow in certain ways and what potential changes to the sorting processes could improve recovery. Here are some key findings from the study:
- Size and shape make a difference. Items tend to flow with similarly sized and shaped materials, so containers shouldn’t be completely flattened or crushed by residents before being placed in their recycling bins or carts. Additionally, package form and stiffness influence flow. Materials that hold their shape have a higher likelihood of making it into the right bale.
- Good separation is important. Maintaining equipment to ensure efficient sorting is critical.
- Optical sorters can help identify material types. As the recycling stream evolves, becoming more diverse and lightweight, optical sorters play an increasingly important role.
SUSTAINABLE PACKAGING’S FUTURE
As the MRF study proved, we are stronger as an industry when we work together to achieve common sustainability and recycling goals across the U.S. As 2016 continues, we are excited for more opportunities to collaborate with companies and to expand the sustainable packaging industry. We encourage everyone in the industry to recognize the value of cartons and see them as a mainstream recyclable commodity.