Milk and juice often come in paper cartons. Without a doubt, these containers create waste. So, as a consumer, what then can you do to keep unnecessary waste out of landfills? Can you recycle milk cartons? The answer is yes, you can, but recycling alone will not solve the problem.
In this article, we’ll answer this question in more detail.
Related: Also, check out our breakdown on whether milk bottles are better than cartons.
A carton is a multilayer package consisting of multiple layers of different materials. The materials could include paper or cardboard, different plastics, and even aluminum foil.
A combination of these different materials poses significant benefits. One of the benefits is their protective properties, which provide storage stability for food items. Others include ease of handling and cheap transportation.
Industries often prefer carton packaging for food and beverages. This is because it requires fewer natural resources to transport due to its efficient product-to-packaging ratio. People can transport products in cartons using fewer trucks, thereby reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Two general types of cartons are recyclable. These are:
Aseptic packages are foiled-lined shelf-stable containers that manufacturers utilize for storing milk, juice, soy milk, broth, and coconut water. We can store these at room temperature, and they don't require refrigeration until we break their seals.
Shelf-stable cartons have an average of 74% paper, 22% plastic, and 4% aluminum. People often mistake them as wax-coated, but carton manufacturers haven’t used wax for a long time.
Gable top cartons are also known as refrigerated cartons. You can find these in the refrigerated sections of your local grocery stores. They are simply cartons that we can store in the refrigerator. This type consists of 80% paper and 20% plastic to hold liquid. They have a plastic layer on the inside and outside.
Food and beverage cartons are widespread. Apart from juice and milk cartons, we also have take-out and ice cream containers. These have varying percentages of their respective components.
The human population keeps increasing, and consumers make more purchases than before. The level of consumption increases the amount of waste we produce—changes in lifestyles, such as opting for fast foods and buying disposable containers, led to increased waste production.
This is compounded by the fact that many new storage container materials are not biodegradable. As a result, your container can stay in landfills for years. This is because living organisms can’t break them down to return to their natural state.
However, milk cartons are biodegradable. They contain natural paper components. Since paper comes from trees, it allows microorganisms to act on it. However, note that it can take up to five years for it to decompose entirely due to its thin layer of plastic.
Recycling is fast becoming an option due to increasing concerns and consciousness about environmental issues. So, are milk cartons recyclable? The good news is that you can recycle milk cartons. The material quality in cartons makes them very desirable for remanufacturing into new products.
All three materials (paper, plastic, and aluminum) that producers use in carton production can be recycled. This makes your plastic milk jugs, juice, or milk cartons highly recyclable.
For many years, separating the three materials for the product to be recycled has posed a significant problem. This has made carton recycling a somewhat complicated process. However, countries like the United States have stepped up in the process of recycling cartons.
This is evident in a recent survey conducted by the Carton Council of North America1. The survey revealed that the percentage of people who recycle their cartons increased from 50% to 61%.
The way you dispose of empty containers can significantly affect the environment. We have established that cartons can now be recycled even though the recyclability posed difficulty years back. However, the recycling process is still not easy.
Some recycling facilities don’t accept cartons, unlike glass containers and metal cans. It largely depends on the capability of the local facilities to separate multilayer materials. Also, it depends on whether the Materials Recovery Facility has the necessary processing machines.
Nonetheless, the following ways are to recycle milk and juice cartons. Before dumping cartons in a local recycling bin, ensure you follow these steps:
You can also recycle milk or juice cartons, alongside most plastic containers and plastic bottles, in your curbside program recycling bin.
Most curbside programs accept various milk cartons and containers. After thorough rinsing and draining, you can dump the empty carton in the curbside bin for recycling.
Before you dispose of it, here are some areas to confirm with your local recycler. This is necessary since recycling technology constantly changes, and curbside recycling processes vary in different cities:
Recycling programs can melt plastic cartons alongside other plastic containers and turn them into new products.
Read more: Recycling tips for recycling at home.
We can obtain diverse new products from recycled milk and juice cartons. During the process of recycling, facilities separate the aluminum and plastic components from the fiber. They can then send the fiber to a paper mill. Some of the products they obtain from recycled materials include:
Paper recycling isn’t the only way to reduce waste. Apart from sending your old cartons to your local recycling facility, you can reuse them. This prevents them from ending up in the recycling stream. Other than that, it prevents the possibility of mix-ups and contaminating other recyclables.
Tap into your inner creative self and engage in craft projects to meet different household purposes. Here are new products you can make using empty milk and juice cartons:
You can reuse milk and juice cartons to make spooky lanterns to light up and decorate the house. Use permanent markers to draw scary faces on the cartons. This is especially great for Halloween.
Instead of dumping empty milk and juice cartons in bins, you can creatively construct them into paper purses. You can then store paper currencies and coins in your new purse.
You can use your old carton to craft different decorations to decorate and fill up the walls in your home.
You can use milk and juice cartons to make toys for children in the house.
You can convert empty milk and juice cartons into beautiful night lights. Cut out a hole in your empty milk and juice carton, cover the carton with a pretty gift wrap, and place your light bulb in it.
Another creative project is to turn empty milk and juice cartons into crayon organizers. When you group crayons in similar shades, it makes them easily accessible.
Those mentioned above and many more ideas can enable you to reuse your old milk carton creatively.
Carton recycling is important as waste has a substantial negative impact on the natural environment. Recycling milk and juice cartons will help in waste management.
If you decide to add your milk cartons to the recycling bin, ensure you clean them first. By doing so, you can recycle cartons without worrying about contaminating other recyclables. More so, you can reuse milk cartons creatively to reduce the need for landfills and thereby preserve the land.
Carton Council. (n.d.). Americans Agree on Recycling
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.