From milk and juice to custard, sauces and soups, food and beverage cartons have become a common sight on supermarket shelves, and for good reason. They are durable, easy to transport and effective at protecting contents from the external elements such as moisture and light.
However, it’s often overlooked that beverage cartons have strong attributes in the environmental sense. They are lightweight (meaning less energy is needed for transport and storage), primarily composed of renewable materials and readily recyclable with the right infrastructure.
So why are they perceived as somewhat problematic in the Australian recycling sphere? Read on to understand the recycling process for beverage cartons and why it’s so important that we keep recycling them.
What are beverage cartons made of?
Beverage cartons are primarily made from a material called liquid paperboard (LPB), which is constructed from layers of paperboard with additional protective layers to keep contents safe.
For gable-top cartons used for chilled fresh milk and juice, the protective layers are only composed of plastic to protect against outside moisture, whilst in the case of long-life products, a thin layer of aluminium foil is used as light and oxygen barriers. In both cases, paperboard makes up the largest proportion of these materials – about 88% of a 1 litre fresh milk carton for example. Paperboard, which is simply a thick paper-based material, is 100% renewable and recyclable.
I’ve heard they are difficult to recycle, is that true?
The process for recycling cartons is not complex and around the world beverage cartons are being recycled at increasing scale. The more cartons we responsibly recycle, the greater chance they have of being turned into new products.
According to Planet Ark's council data (updated annually) the majority of Australians have access to carton recycling as of the beginning of 2020: 90.1% of Australians live in areas where non-foil-lined containers are accepted in their kerbside recycling and 67.2% live in areas where foil-lined containers are accepted. Furthermore, flavoured milk and juice cartons under 1 litre including both long-life and regular cartons are accepted for recycling in states that have container deposit schemes (CDS).
When these cartons get collected with the rest of your commingled recycling, they are taken to a Materials Recovery Facility where it is sorted into various streams (paper, metal, glass and plastic). LPB cartons need to end up in the paper/cardboard stream to be recycled. Once the cartons are sorted into the paper/cardboard stream, they are compacted and baled to be sent to paper mills domestically and overseas.
Some paper recyclers do not want cartons in their recycling streams as they say it degrades the value of the recycled paper fibre. However, on average, fresh beverage and long-life, foil-lined cartons make up just 0.6% of mixed paper bales sorted at recycling sorting facilities (note: this is pre-COVID, which may have had an impact on levels of contamination). While cartons entering the mixed paper stream is not ideal, from an environmental perspective it is a much better outcome than those containers being sent to landfill.
How do they get recycled?
At paper mills, the cartons are shredded and added to what is essentially a giant blender that uses water to break down the materials. It is screened to separate the materials into paper pulp, and plastic and aluminium layers before going through a de-inking process to remove the dyes and inks used on the products. The resultant pulp is ready to be processed and turned into new paper products like paper towels, tissue and paper bags.
The cartons that are collected through container deposit schemes come from a cleaner stream. They are baled into their own stream and sent to the paper mills for recycling into new valuable products. For instance, Tetra Pak used beverage cartons are sent to their recycling partners in the Asia-Pacific region. The paper is first extracted to be made into a variety of paper products, such as paper towels, tissue and paper bags. The plastic and aluminium (polyAl) are sent for further recycling into roofing tiles and/or building materials. Find out information about the container deposit scheme in your state.
So what’s being done to improve carton recycling?
Companies like Tetra Pak are actively working to improve recycling solutions for food and beverage cartons. Tetra Pak is currently negotiating setting up three recycling facilities specifically for cartons in Australia and New Zealand. This would help reduce dependency on waste export channels, limit the number of cartons ending up in landfill and ensure the cartons continue to deliver value after use. The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation is also undertaking Material Recovery Facility and pulpability trials with liquid paperboard to find solutions.
Tetra Pak is also taking other steps to reduce the environmental impact of its products, like having recently introduced a new product to the Australian market, the Tetra Rex Plant-based carton, which is made entirely from renewable materials. The majority of the packaging remains paperboard but the protective bioplastic layer in these cartons are derived from sugar cane moving away from fossil fuel-based materials.
Brownes Dairy in Western Australia recently became Australia’s first company to transition its milk carton to the new Tetra Rex packs. The bio-based packaging will be rolled out across 25 products, accounting for about 17.8 million cartons per year.
Carton recycling in Australia relies on members of the public to correctly dispose of their cartons through a container deposit scheme or in kerbside recycling for councils that do accept them. The more cartons we responsibly recycle, the more we’re creating a circular economy and reducing waste.
Make use of container deposit schemes where possible and find out if your council is one of the majority that accept cartons in kerbside recycling by checking RecyclingNearYou.
*This article was updated on 17 September 2020.