Dear Recyclebank: A large amount of my groceries are packaged in aseptic Tetra Paks, and while the containers clearly state that they are “recyclable only where facilities exist”, my municipality never seems to get on board. As a concerned eco-citizen, what can I do to prevent this valuable material from ending up in my garbage can? –Elizah L., Denver, CO
Dear Elizah: The use of aseptic containers, like those manufactured by the company Tetra Pak, are becoming more common, as they make your milk, wine, soups, and sauces shelf-stable and pathogen free for up to one year without refrigeration. But similar to composite containers or single use coffee pods, aseptic containers can be difficult to recycle because they combine several different materials that can’t be separated very easily; aseptic containers generally consist of six to seven layers of paper, aluminum, and low-density polyethylene plastic film.
In order to recycle the paper layer, paper mills need special equipment that can separate the carton layers from each other. Paper mills that don’t have that equipment don’t have a use for cartons, and so won’t buy them from MRFs, making it financially tough for some communities to collect cartons for recycling. But the good news is that many MRFs have found end markets for cartons — several communities throughout 48 states now have access to carton recycling — and for those of us in communities that don’t have access to curbside carton recycling, there are ways you can take action in the meantime.
As part of their commitment to double the amount of Tetra Pak cartons that are recycled — from 20% in 2010 to 40% by 2020 — Tetra Pak and other carton manufacturers work together as the Carton Council to help divert cartons from landfills. If you can’t put aseptic cartons in your recycling bin, you can use the Carton Council’s mail-in program, where you bundle at least 30 cartons and ship them to one of six recycling facilities.
If you want to get your municipality on board with curbside carton recycling, the Carton Council may be able to help you there, too. Municipalities may expand the types of items accepted for recycling if enough residents voice that they are willing to actively recycle that item. Check to see if your local community has a waste or sustainability committee that will listen to resident feedback and help address environmental issues (if none exist, speak to your local government representative about establishing one in order to develop more green policies and practices for your town). If resident demand doesn’t seem to be enough, you can introduce them to the Carton Council: In addition to offering technical assistance, they can pair MRFs with people who will buy the recycled cartons, making carton recycling financially possible for municipalities and haulers.
For readers unsure about whether or not cartons are accepted, there’s a Carton Council solution for that, too: You can see if carton recycling is available in your community on their site, RecycleCartons.com.