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US carton recycling leaps 160% in four years

By Jenni Spinner+

10-Jan-2014
Last updated the 22-Jan-2014 at 17:20 GMT

The Carton Council reports recycling of carton containers is on the rise in the US.
The Carton Council reports recycling of carton containers is on the rise in the US.

Recycling of carton packaging is on an upward tick in the US, with nearly half of 48% of households enjoying access to container recycling.

The Carton Council, an organization of carton manufacturers that have joined forces to help boost recycling rates and divert cartons from festering in landfills, reports the figure is a significant improvement upon 2009 figures. During that year, only 18% of households in the country had access to carton recycling services.

Marked improvement

Jazon Pelz, vice president of environment for member company Tetra Pak North America, said the advancements made in the last year alone are notable.

We are proud of the progress made in 2013,” Pelz said. “Carton recycling access has increased 160% in just four years; school-aged children are learning about the importance of recycling their milk and juice cartons as part of their larger contribution to the environment, and are then taking these lessons home to their parents.

Pelz spoke with FPD and explained the organization’s report on the rise in carton recycling, and what it means for the future of the food and beverage industry.

FPD: Why is the boost in carton recycling rates good news?

Pelz: As consumers demand sustainable solutions and the pressure to increase recycling increases for packaging  manufacturers, brands, governments, etc. carton recycling progress is definitely good news to the industry.

Furthermore, the progress in carton recycling is an interesting example of voluntary private-public collaboration, where Carton Council engages with members across the entire recycling supply chain to drive success.    

In an increasingly competitive and green minded climate, consumers are revealing that they expect brands to engage in and actively help increase recycling efforts. Last fall, the Carton Council commissioned a survey that found that 86% of US adults say they expect food and beverage brands to actively help increase recycling of their packages.

The same survey revealed that more than half (51%) said their likelihood of purchasing a particular package would be positively impacted by a logo or symbol showing the package is recyclable.

Could you please share some examples of your efforts?

In Emmet County, Michigan, a challenge was issued to residents: collect 10,000 lbs. of cartons in 10 weeks. The campaign was supported by a matching grant from the Carton Council and focused on a variety of activities, including gaining often elusive media attention, placing ads in local papers and on radio stations, creating public art for display around the County and providing point-of-purchase reminders about carton recycling at local grocery stores.

At the end of the 10-week challenge, Emmet County residents had collected 10,165 pounds, exceeding their goal.

Also, in Des Moines, Iowa, we worked with local officials to mail a postcard promoting carton recycling to 80,000 households, and also sent a utility bill insert to approximately 20,000 households in the surrounding suburban areas. In Tampa, we engaged city officials to participate in television morning shows promoting the introduction of cartons to their recycling program.

In Columbus, Ohio more than 550 commercials spots aired over a five-week period on local NBC and FOX television affiliates, along with the local Time Warner cable networks (Food Network, MSNBC, HGTV and others).

What are some of the most effective ways to build carton-recycling success?

The key word here is collaboration; it takes everyone working together. For example, the Carton Council works closely with material recovery facilities–those who process recyclables to help get them on board so they can accept cartons.

This often includes connecting them with a broker to ensure they have a beneficial end market for their recycled cartons. We also work with local governments who operate or oversee local residential recycling programs to ensure they recognize the benefits of including cartons.

Many communities have Zero Waste goals and cartons are crucial to meeting these. But access is only one piece of it. The next step is ensuring residents know they can recycle their cartons and promoting that fact.

How can you increase buy-in among citizens and municipal recovery agencies?

Consumers want to recycle the products they purchase, so they need to be educated that cartons are recyclable and accepted where they live (and if they are not, we are working hard to change that.) Communities want to satisfy this citizen demand while also making their recycling program more convenient (the more items they accept, the less guesswork for residents = increased participation).

Lastly, material recovery facilities want to make the communities (their customers) happy while also collecting and processing profitable items that have end markets. Everyone benefits.

What do the councils and its member companies have planned to help continue the success?

Last year we unveiled a website (www.CartonOpportunities.org) where stakeholders from the industry can get all of the information they need about carton recycling, and we can make the process of accepting cartons even easier. This was critical.

This year, we are continuing to focus on increasing access to carton recycling, recognizing that first and foremost, Americans need to be able to easily recycle cartons. Great strides have been made in this area and continue to be made every day. 

Additionally, as access to carton recycling increases, we are shifting our focus more towards recovery; that is, working to increase the amount of cartons being recycled.

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