From dishing out lunchroom milks to stocking shelves with snacks and alternative dairy products, cartons have come a long way as part of daily life. In recent years, the product barely edged its way into a new category of maturity: Recyclability.
The achievement can be attributed in large part to the Carton Council, a nonprofit industry group founded in 2009 to fund and help organize higher carton recycling rates. At the time, only one mill accepted polycoated cartons. By 2012, eight more locations around the world did. Household access to carton recycling soared from 6% in 2009 to 61% as of 2019, 1% above the domestic accessibility levels required to legally call a product "recyclable" under federal guidelines.
But as new international trade policies shook recycling programs in the United States in recent years, some states and municipalities started dropping cartons from recycling lists.
"Baled cartons never went to China," said Jason Pelz, vice president of recycling projects with the Carton Council, but "everything affected everything."
This holds true for these aseptic containers, which make up a small percentage of the waste stream and can often accumulate in MRFs for months before facilities have enough for a shipment. While all recycling procedures are now further disrupted by the coronavirus, and the paper portions of cartons could help resolve changing supply chain needs, it might be too soon to tell how the pandemic will affect what does or doesn't get recycled.
Despite these changes, the council continues to fund new collection efforts, MRF processing abilities and domestic markets for cartons. The group's interventions resemble what some in the packaging sector might consider a voluntary and more appealing version of extended producer responsibility (EPR). But for carton recycling to continue growing, some solutions — like widespread adoption of an alternative roofing material or a viable use for the plastic and aluminum carton components — will have to kick in before more municipalities potentially abandon the material as a whole.
Gaining critical mass
One of the states that has given up carton recycling in recent years is Massachusetts. In 2017, the state began revising the list of materials recommended for inclusion in recycling programs. During the review process, some of the major MRF operators in the state — which include Waste Management and Casella Waste Systems — told the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) that cartons were no longer being recycled, as there was no viable end market for the product.
"MassDEP does not want to tell the public to recycle something that is ultimately going to be thrown away or end up as a contaminate in the recovered paper process," the department said in a statement to Waste Dive.
Some of the reasons why the material is no longer considered widely recyclable in Massachusetts might be found across the country. If a MRF collects cartons, it has to find the space to set them aside until a large enough quantity accumulates for resale. At Dem-Con in Minnesota, the facility processes 90,000 tons of material each year, said President Bill Keegan. Cartons make up 0.2% of what comes in.
"If you are a smaller facility and you only produce a half a load a year, that product sits around for a long time and starts to degrade," Keegan said.
Though even 0.2% sounds small, that is twice the amount of cartons Dem-Con used to collect. The percentage changed after partnering with the Carton Council. Part of the council’s technique to ramp up national carton collection and processing is to help MRFs mitigate any obstacles that stand in the way of collecting and selling cartons. So far, the council has given millions of dollars in grants to MRFs to make this happen, Pelz said. "It's not like the money just goes and we say thanks, whatever. There's commitments that are made on both sides."
The partnership between Dem-Con and the Carton Council kicked off in 2017 with the facility serving as a kind of test site for a new robotic system that sorts out cartons on its own. Called the AMP Cortex Robot, the machinery relies on artificial intelligence to learn common items in the stream and sort them out. Though Dem-Con has the machine pulling cartons, the robot — of which the Carton Council is an investor — can switch to another product if it needs to. It also takes up little space compared to other sorters in the facility, Keegan said, and functions over the line. That way, if it is ever nonfunctional, the robot won't shut down all the processing machinery.
Previously, Keegan said, it didn't make financial sense to put an employee on the line to just pull out cartons. While he declined to share how much of the robot the council funded, Keegan said they've served as a kind of research and design facility for the system. Since it was the first one installed in a cold-weather location, Keegan said "we learned a lot in those early days" and there were some hardware and software adjustments. Extra public education about carton recycling also helped Dem-Con double what they collected.
Pelz said the organization is technology agnostic when it comes to finding the best solutions for MRFs. So far, according to AMP's Vice President of Marketing Chris Wirth, the council has helped install AMP sorting robots at two other locations in the U.S. and more partnerships are planned. The company expects customers to see a return on their investment within 18 months to two years.
After MRF sorting comes purchasing and reuse — a final step the Carton Council bolsters as well. Right now, five paper mills in North America accept cartons for processing, Pelz said. One, the Quebec location of Sustana Fiber, announced the facility would be accepting cartons earlier this month. All facilities extract the fiber and turn them into paper products, but throw away the plastic or aluminum components. The Carton Council funds research into solutions for the byproduct in the U.S., something that Pelz said European recyclers already have worked on.
If recycled cartons don't go to these mills, then they go to a Continuus Materials location in Des Moines, Iowa. The startup turns post-consumer paper and plastic into low-slope roof coverboard for commercial buildings. Called Everboard, the sustainable replacement for traditional building supplies sits atop a Pennsylvania theater, an Atlanta office building and even a Taco Bell in Texas. Continuus produces the material in part because the company acquired ReWall, the Iowa-based start-up that pioneered an early version of this coverboard and was long supported by the Carton Council.
The exact percentage of the coverboard that comes from cartons is proprietary information, as is where the company sources their trash-bound raw material, said Jeff Dushack, the Continuus marketing director. For every 1,000 square feet of coverboard, Continuus diverts 2,000 pounds of paper and plastic from landfills. Industrial settings often mean large roofs; one project covered 360,000 square feet, Dushack said. If that coverboard were made exclusively of cartons, Continuus would require nine MRFs baling as many cartons as Dem-Con does in Minnesota every year.
As Continuus grows, it also has to decide whether it's better to be close to the recycled plastic and paper or the buildings that purchase coverboard. The company is making that decision now as it looks to build a third production plant. Most business might be in regions prone to severe, roof-damaging storms, like southwestern Arkansas. However, their raw materials are sparser in less densely-populated areas — "it's not a good place to gather waste," Dushack said.
The Continuus coverboard is a prime example of an industry supporting future uses of their packaging, said Dan Felton, executive director of AMERIPEN, a trade organization representing the packaging supply chain. The association thinks the Carton Council, a member, has led a successful push to save their product from disposal in recent years. "It's a great story, from our perspective," Felton said.
Whether or not the material is pervasive (or valuable) enough for all MRFs to justify accepting the carton, it's considered likely that more of this packaging will appear in coming years. Cartons hold serious appeal for manufacturers. Their linear dimensions allow for space-efficient shipping, and some versions make perishable items surprisingly shelf-stable.
As that growth happens, the suite of Carton Council actions — like funding robotic sorting and future uses of their product — could be viewed as useful steps toward complying with future EPR or product stewardship policies. This concept, which has cropped up more often in discussions about recycling, puts manufacturers physically or financially in control of how their products are handled after consumer use.
Even with its work to date, the council is far from bearing the brunt of what it would take to do this nationwide and groups such as AMERIPEN don't think these policies should be the future of recycling.
"It may at the end of the day be that we as an industry need to be part of an EPR program, but we don’t feel it’s all up to us," Felton said.
The voluntary nature of what the Carton Council has done so far is also why Keegan at Dem-Con was interested in working with the organization. A full EPR program might look like a brand itself running collection, sorting and reuse efforts — a process that Keegan said might cut out existing recycling companies and infrastructure. When it comes to that prospect, "there's a fear of one: not having the right people running the system and two: leaving stranded assets out there," Keegan said.
At the same time, a voluntary program also means municipalities are free to drop carton collection if they want to. New Orleans, Greensboro, North Carolina and parts of Washington state dropped the material from recycling services within the past year.
"We don't want to see anyone drop it," Pelz said, which is part of why the council is working to create more domestic solutions for the material. That said, the pandemic has pushed some smaller municipalities to forego recycling programs entirely and could have longer lasting effects.
As of late March, Pelz thought it was too soon to make a prediction about what effect that might have on the "recyclable" status of cartons. For now, he pointed out the paper component of some cartons can go into high-demand products like toilet paper and tissues.
"We do want to get the word out that Grade #52 cartons can help meet this demand and encourage mills that don’t already use cartons to do so," said Pelz.
It's possible that new mills tapping into this paper source could help cartons keep their hard-won designation that only came after nearly a decade of work. Keeping that status might take even more voluntary investment from the Carton Council than the organization has already spent in the past decade.
This story has been updated to clarify that cartons surpassed the 60% recyclability threshold in 2017 and remained at 61% as of 2019.