You’ve likely heard that cartons are a recyclable commodity that contain high-value fiber. They are growing in acceptance in U.S. recycling programs, with more than 50 percent of U.S. households now having access to carton recycling through their residential curbside or drop-off programs. However, you may not know that they can be a key ingredient to producing green building materials.
To attain their highest value as a secondary commodity, cartons should be sorted and baled by themselves at material recovery facilities (MRFs). A strong and growing market exists in the U.S. as well as internationally for what is known as Grade No. 52 (more on this later). Currently, four paper mills process cartons in the U.S., while 10 mills total in North America use the material. At these mills, cartons become the raw materials for a variety of products, such as writing paper, tissues and paper towels.
As CEO of The ReWall Co., a green building materials company that produces 100-percent-recycled materials, I have a bit of a unique perspective shaped by my company’s need for cartons.
First, let me start by defining cartons. Cartons are a type of packaging for food and beverage products. They are easy to recognize and are available in two formats: shelf-stable (also called “aseptic”) and refrigerated (known as “gable-top”). Shelf-stable cartons are found on grocery store shelves and are used for things like juice, milk, soy milk, wine, soup and broth. Refrigerated cartons are found in the chilled sections of grocery stores and are used for milk, juice, cream and egg substitutes.
Closing the loop with cartons
As a green building materials company, cartons play a huge role in ReWall’s business. We use every part of the carton, upcycling them into durable, moisture- and mold-resistant composite panels. We use no formaldehyde glues or hazardous chemicals. Our products have a positive impact on air quality because they emit no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). And our products can be used to gain certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and National Green Building Standards.
Now that I’ve given my sales pitch, let me explain further. We were inspired by the recycling efforts in Europe, where cartons are much more prevalent as a packaging material. In 2008, we saw the growing use of cartons in the United Sates and learned that increased efforts were underway to recover more of this valuable commodity. This prompted us to establish a presence in North America and, in 2011, we opened a facility in Des Moines, Iowa.
Des Moines is more than a location to us. We have become part of the Iowa community. Because Iowa is concerned with sustainability, the Department of Natural Resources saw ReWall as a natural fit and committed to using ReWall sustainable materials in various construction projects throughout the state. For instance, the cities of Des Moines and Waterloo have mandated their contractors to use ReWall instead of plywood in vacant, boarded-up properties. Des Moines Public Schools started using boards and ceiling tiles made from students’ milk cartons. These are all real examples of closed-loop sustainability practices.
The value of cartons
Cartons are made mainly from long fiber paperboard and contain thin layers of polyethylene (PE). Aseptic cartons also contain a thin layer of aluminum. Neither is wax coated.
As is common with any “new” commodity in the recycling industry, there are often questions about its true recyclability. In 2011, the Paper Stock Industries (PSI) chapter of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington, created a new specification for aseptic/gable-top cartons: Grade No. 52. Because of this, cartons that are positively sorted have a higher value in end markets versus those that are included with mixed paper.
Grade No. 52 cartons are extremely important to our manufacturing process; this is what we use to produce our products. And, let me tell you, we can’t get enough of them! Every 4-by-8 sheet of ReWall material produced contains approximately 420 half-gallon cartons.
At The ReWall Co., we offer an alternative to paper mills as an end market solution for recovered cartons. Once MRFs have recovered and baled cartons for shipping, instead of sending them to a paper mill for fiber extraction, ReWall can use the entire carton in our manufacturing process, which consumes no water and uses every piece of the carton—caps and all. We shred and press-melt these cartons into sheet goods.
The carton itself is manufactured from an inherently mold- and moisture-resistant composite material that also is remarkably durable. These are all the same properties that builders look for when they want to build energy-efficient, high-performance and, most important, healthy buildings.
Cartons are quickly becoming established as a common recyclable commodity in the United States—with good reason. They are lightweight, compact and convenient. Meanwhile, food and beverage companies are happy because they offer a sustainable packaging option that has a low carbon footprint.
In addition to the benefits cartons offer food and beverage companies, consumers believe cartons are recyclable. According to findings from a survey commissioned by the Carton Council in January 2014, far more than half (65 percent) of consumers believe cartons are recyclable.
Some may think that number should be higher, but when you consider the much shorter time that cartons have been used as a packaging option in the U.S. compared with other materials, such as aluminum cans and plastic bottles, that’s quite a substantial percentage. And that emphasizes the progress the industry has achieved over the last five years—progress that ReWall is proud to support.
Some consider our process to be resource-efficient; we consider it to be natural and sensible. By using a proven European technology, we can consume recovered cartons and recycle them into green building materials, such as exterior and interior wall sheathing, floor underlayment, moisture- and abuse-resistant wallboard and wall panels, ceiling panels and substrate for floor and countertop ceramic and vinyl tile installations.
Our process is environmentally friendly; we do not need to strip away the PE layers or remove the ink from the packaging to manufacture our products, nor do we use added glue, water or chemicals.
While this may sound like a new process, for the past 20 years, it actually has been used effectively in Europe, where, as previously mentioned, cartons have been in use for much longer than they have in the United States.
Nearly all of the inputs used to create ReWall’s products are sourced within 500 miles of our production facility in Des Moines. As a result of our process, ReWall manufactures green building materials that are produced from 100-percent-recycled content.
Join the movement
Although cartons and carton recycling have been fairly prominent throughout Europe for some time, the U.S. is still working to catch up. According to the Carton Council, the number of U.S. households with access to carton recycling has grown by more than 183 percent since 2009 and currently stands at just under 52 percent. This is good news for companies like ours that rely on cartons as feedstock for our manufacturing processes.
In 2014, we joined the Carton Council’s network of Carton Recycling Champions, comprising companies committed to supporting carton recycling. While we may be slightly unique in terms of the nature of our business (most of the other champions are food and beverage brands), we have a compelling reason to support carton recycling.
We are proud to be a part of closing the carton recycling loop and providing an end market option for cartons to be recycled into sustainable building materials that are even more efficient to produce and use than traditional materials that are used in construction.
Jan Rayman is CEO of The ReWall Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ReWall products are manufactured in Des Moines, Iowa, and are distributed nationally. More information about The ReWall Co. is available at www.rewallmaterials.com. More about the Carton Council and the Carton Recycling Champions network is available at www.cartonopportunities.org.