New MRF study reveals best practices for carton recycling


By Derric Brown

Since the Carton Council formed in 2009, our efforts have focused on bringing carton recycling to communities across the United States, ensuring that the multitude of food and beverage cartons consumers buy and use end up recycled. This includes working with the communities that run residential recycling programs, the material recovery facilities (MRFs) that handle the cartons after they have been placed in recycling containers, and the paper mills that use the carton bales to make new materials. It also includes schools where high quantities of cartons are consumed and of course the general population, who need to be aware that cartons are recyclable. Now, more than half of all U.S. households can recycle cartons where they live. When we first began, we sat at only 18 percent of households. We’re proud of this growth and hope you are, too.  

As we continue our work, we also know that we need (and want) to better understand what happens to cartons when they get to the recycling facility, or “where the rubber meets the road.” After all, if a consumer takes the time to recycle their cartons, we want to make sure they end up being recycled. To that end, we recently co-funded a MRF Material Flow Study with the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR), Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) and the  National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR).

The study evaluated where cartons and other packages end up in a sorting facility, why they flow in certain ways and what potential changes to the sorting processes could improve recovery. The study looked at gable-top and aseptic cartons, as well as a variety of other materials including, paper and plastic cups, clamshells, containers, domes/trays, bottles, tubs and lids.

From this study, we found that cartons should not be flattened or crushed before being placed into a recycling container. They tend to flow better with similarly sized and shaped materials. Additionally, materials like cartons that hold their shape have a higher likelihood of making it to the right bale if they maintain that shape. This means that it’s even easier to recycle cartons than we thought since they don’t need to be flattened or crushed! We now know that we should communicate this to consumers and other stakeholders.  

As we continue to work hard to improve the infrastructure so that cartons can be easily recycled, we’re happy to have this information in our arsenal to further ensure the cartons can be recycled effectively and efficiently, and to communicate that there are actions that can be taken at all steps along the process to ensure items get their maximum value when they are recycled.

Derric Brown is vice president of sustainability for the Carton Council of North America and director of sustainability for Evergreen Packaging. He can be reached at