Cartons are made mainly with renewable resources, have a low-carbon footprint across their lifecycle, and are highly recyclable.

Carton Recycling: Don't Underestimate the Impact

Forty percent of U.S. households, about 46.7 million households, now have access to carton recycling. Just three years ago, household access stood at 18 percent.

Even the most budget-strapped cities and fiscally conservative corporations are recognizing the importance of being more sustainable. Recycling is no longer an optional service for communities to offer. What is optional, however, is how robust the program is and how impactful it truly can be. Here is often where true leadership is demonstrated. In the corporate world, businesses are recognizing that their stakeholders, including employees and investors, want to work and invest in a company that has sustainability goals and follows through on them.

Here's where my industry comes in. I work for one of the world's largest food carton manufacturers, Tetra Pak, who is also one of the founding companies of the Carton Council, a group of carton manufacturers formed in 2009 to deliver long-term collaborative solutions to divert valuable cartons from the landfill. In addition to Tetra Pak, the Carton Council's members include carton manufacturers Elopak, SIG Combibloc, Evergreen Packaging, as well as paperboard supplier Weyerhaeuser as an associate member.

Cartons are one of the most sustainable food and beverage packaging options in existence. When looking for ways to improve sustainability efforts in packaging, there is little the carton doesn't offer. It's made mainly with renewable resources, has a low-carbon footprint across its lifecycle, and is highly recyclable.

The 'Faces of 40'
Through the unified industry effort lead by the council, carton recycling recently reached a major milestone. Forty percent of U.S. households now have access to carton recycling -- that's approximately 46.7 million households. Compared with just three years ago, when household access stood at 18 percent, this is an increase of 122 percent. During the past three years, carton recycling access has been added to programs in Dallas, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Memphis, Denver, San Diego, and Los Angeles. But we didn't do it alone.

The Carton Council is committed to building a sustainable infrastructure for carton recycling nationwide by working with stakeholders at each point of the recycling supply chain and carton lifecycle, from the recycling communities to material recovery facilities, brokers, paper mills, and others. Each entity has a role in elevating the prevalence of carton recycling and achieving great returns on post-consumer cartons.

It is thanks to individuals and entities along every point of the recycling supply chain and carton lifecycle that we have reached this 40 percent milestone. For carton recycling to be successfully established in a community's program, it takes all stakeholders involved to be actively engaged in the effort. Without communities such as Emmet County, Mich., we would not have success stories such as their "10,000 Pounds in 10 Weeks" challenge, which exceeded the initial goal by collecting 10,000 pounds of cartons in just 10 days.

We have champions out there who incorporate cartons into their focus of maximizing recovery and recycling for the communities they serve. By continuing to work together, we can make greater headway and progress, ultimately meeting our continual goal of making carton recycling accessible throughout the United States.

Catching the United States Up
Compared to other areas of the world, such as Europe, the United States has been slow to climb on the carton recycling bandwagon. Carton recycling is a standard practice worldwide with more than 140 mills accepting post-consumer recycled cartons. Although carton recycling has been going on at small levels in the United States for more than two decades, we are still largely playing catch-up with the rest of the world: Only nine of those 140 mills are located in North America. When U.S. carton recycling access stood at just 18 percent in 2009, there was only one paper mill accepting cartons, but coordinated efforts by the Carton Council and industry stakeholders and leaders during the past three years have produced tremendous growth. However, there is still much farther to go.

Through a multi-tiered process, the council is working backwards from end markets to increase carton recycling by:

1. Working with mills to build demand for cartons as a recyclable commodity.
2. Building the supply "pipeline" with MRFs and brokers.
3. Developing consumer awareness and participation by working with carton-accepting communities to provide educational support to their local residents.

Interestingly, we find that, in many cases, Americans automatically assume cartons are recyclable. The paper makeup of them seems like a natural fit for the recycling stream.

As communities look to divert more from their waste streams, with some even implementing Zero Waste goals, carton recycling seems inevitable and a win for all, because we're talking about a commodity with real value. As carton recycling access continues to grow, we need more industry players to join these efforts. I encourage others to join the discussion, learn more about the "Faces of 40" and join our efforts to help make a sustainable impact through carton recycling. Visit

About the Author

Jason Pelz is vice president of recycling projects for the Carton Council of North America and vice president, environment, for Tetra Pak Cluster Americas. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information about the Carton Council, visit