Recycling Does A Milk Carton Good

I was reading a recent issue of National Geographic’s The Green Guide (Spring 2008) and on the last page of the magazine was an image hundreds of milk cartons lining a street to demonstrate how much milk American’s consume. The image was taken from National Geographic Channel documentary Human Footprint.

According to the movie, America consumes 989,985,594,240 half gallons of milk over the course of a lifetime and it takes more than one trillion kilowatt-hours of energy to produce, ship and landfill the milk cartons. That amount of energy emits 740,674,244 tons of greenhouse gases. Amazingly, only a tiny fraction of the cartons are recycled.

That got me thinking. How many milk cartons does my household go through over a short period of time, say a week? More importantly, why are milk cartons not recycled? They are made of paper aren’t they? Even more puzzling is the fact that on the side of some of the cartons I buy, it says “please recycle”. I want to, but my town will not take them. So I decided to do some research on how to recycle a milk carton, and why my town won’t do it. I thought the information would be readily available. I was wrong.

Initially I was going to save my cartons for one week, assuming this would be plenty of time to get enough information to write on the subject. Well, do a “Google” search on “milk carton recycling” and you will basically come up with… nothing. Four weeks and 30 cartons later, I am finally writing about it.

This is what I discovered…

Milk cartons ARE recyclable, however, according to an EPA report of MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) provided to me by the National Recycling Coalition, in 2006, 510,000 tons of milk cartons were generated in the United States and less than 0.05% (5,000 tons) were recycled.

In 2006, only a little more than 550 towns across the country recycled milk cartons (source: Organic Valley). To put this into perspective, there are 556 municipalities in New Jersey. Doing a non-scientific search on the internet of various towns across the country, I discovered you cannot recycle milk cartons in San Diego, DC, the entire state of Pennsylvania, Los Angeles and Austin but you can in New York City and Boulder, CO.

But why?

According to Ed Skernolis, Policy and Program Director for the National Recycling Coalition, “Milk cartons, because of the wax lining, are not universally recycled. Each locality is different, depending on their recycling processing capability. Some communities may allow milk cartons to go into composting/food waste bins if offered.”

Boulder, Colorado’s Eco-Cycle is the most progressive recycling program in the country. They do recycle milk and juice cartons. Dan Matsch, Manager for the Center for Hard Recycle Materials, Eco-Cycle, said that milk cartons are very good source for recycled paper because the fibers are long, however, they have a plastic coating which sometimes makes it difficult to recycle. According to Matsch, the main reason that many municipalities do not recycle milk/juice cartons is that they need to be rinsed out– which rarely happens. Once the cartons get to the recycling center they get bailed and shipped (usually by truck, then boat) and by the time they reach their destination for recycling they are “ripe” or partially composted.

Boulder has dedicated significant resources towards education to teach the community and kids in school the importance of recycling. The city has been involved in recycling education in the school system for 21 years! Students are involved…they even have milk carton monitors to make sure that the leftover is poured out prior to placing in the recycling bin.

Most milk cartons, such as those sold by Organic Valley, are made by Tetra Pak. Tetra Pak manufactures two types of cartons: gable-top and aseptic cartons. The first ones are the chilled cartons, mainly for milk and orange juice. The aseptic ones are used for a variety of food products and have shelf life of up to 12 months without the need of refrigeration or preservatives. They rely on three things: packaging material (six layers of protection), UHT (ultra high temperature) food processing and aseptic filling machines. UHT, or Ultra High Temperature treatment takes place in optimised heat exchangers before packaging. This process minimizes heat penetration problems and allows very short heating and cooling times, at the same time minimizing unwanted changes in the taste and nutritional properties of the product.

One of the biggest challenges with carton recycling is generating volume enough for the recycling chain to make a profit out of recycling cartons. According to Tetra Pak, as recycling is a business, all players are looking for sustainable business: from the recycling facilities to the tissue mills. Tetra Pak has been working with cities and schools across the country to increase milk and juice carton recycling.

Ok, all of this is good and well right? But, it begs an important question, which is better, milk cartons or plastic ones? According to Organic Valley, “Plastic is easier to recycle, but is oil based. Paperboard is made mostly of a renewable material paper.” Matsch of Boulder’s Eco-Cycle believes that “Tetra Pak beats the pants off anything in terms of carbon foodprint. Tetra Paks are very space efficient, using less square feet for shipping, however, they do need to be refrigerated.”

Where does the recycled paper go? To one of the biggest paper companies in the world, Weyerhaeuser. Weyerhaeuser is one of the largest pulp an paper company in the world. In addition, the company collects and recycles wastepaper, boxes, and newsprint to make new products. According to Pete Grogan, Manager of Market Development for Weyerhaeuser Recycling, “We [Weyerhaeuser] accept Tetra Pak and gable top containers (milk) for recycling. In our case, we produce recycled content newsprint from these materials in addition to using old newspapers and magazines as a feedstock.”

Ok. This is a ton of information to swallow. So lets take a quick moment to put it all into perspective. We all consume a ton of milk. If you’re a mom like me, you’re practically swimming in the white stuff. If you’re reading this you care deeply about both the environment and a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. And, after reading all this you’re probably a bit confused on what to do.

Here’s my conclusions:

(1) Paper cartons are WAY better than plastic. They are healthier for your you and kids, and have a much smaller carbon footprint to produce and ship than plastic ones.
(2) Paper can be recycled, so each one of us needs to petition, lobby and work to get out towns and cities to recycle these cartons. If we each do a little, we’ll all add up to a lot of impact.
(3) Read more, learn more and educate more. Every little bit helps, and my month-long odyssey to learn about this issue has taught me a great deal. But I have a lot more to learn. As I do, I’ll let you all know.

About Melissa Goldberg

28 Comments

  1. Wow, I can’t believe how much of the country doesn’t recycle milk cartons! My fiance goes through massive ammounts milk…I’m suprised it doesn’t run through his veins. I, however, have never been a big fan, being lactose intolerant and all as a child. It is such a shame that more people don’t recylce milk cartons. But, at least I am one more person who is educated about it now. Thanks!

  2. Wow, I can’t believe how much of the country doesn’t recycle milk cartons! My fiance goes through massive ammounts milk…I’m suprised it doesn’t run through his veins. I, however, have never been a big fan, being lactose intolerant and all as a child. It is such a shame that more people don’t recylce milk cartons. But, at least I am one more person who is educated about it now. Thanks!

  3. What a lot of great info! Thanks!
    In my area we are encouraged to put our milk cartons in with yard waste, which gets composted. All you have to do is tear off the plastic spout if you have one of the capped cartons.

    The same goes for egg cartons (the paper-based kind) and pizza boxes – all those paper products with oils and food waste attached that cannot be traditionally recycled go in our yard waste bin, even food waste itself. So if you can’t recycle milk cartons where you live, look into composting or yard waste, because that is a lot of paper!

  4. Wow, I never heard that you could recycle paper in a composter (at least coated paper)! I don’t drink milk, but I do drinks soy, hemp, rice and almond milks, all of which come in tetrapaks that are NOT recycled in my area. Because I compost and recycle so much else, oftentimes all that’s in my garbage are cracker and cereal boxes (paper) and soy milk containers. I would have virtually no garbage if these were recyclable! Maybe i will experiment with composting at least some of them now.

  5. Boulder, CO has a composting program, however, they stopped excepting milk cartons and tetra paks because they found that because if the various layers in the packaging, plastics and metals were found in the compost. That is why they started to recycle them. If you decide to put your milk cartons or tetra paks in the composter, I would not use the compost for a edible garden but I bet it is OK for trees and shrubs.

    According to the information provided to me by Tetra Pak, gable-top cartons can be composted. “They are now included in numerous residential and commercial composting programs primarily on the West Coast. Bellingham and Olympia, WA; San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose, Oakland and San Fernando in California and Hutchinson, MN who all accept gable-top cartons in their municipal food waste composting programs. Because cartons are comprised of mostly paper, approximately 85%, they work well in either a residential, commercial or institutional food waste program.” (source: Tetra Pak)

    However, aseptic ones are used for a variety of food products and have shelf life of up to 12 months without the need of refrigeration or preservatives, have metal in it and I do not believe they are good for composting.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Surprisingly, we still have a local dairy who bottles their milk in glass and gives you a discount when you turn in your empty bottles. Definitely the way to go.

  7. Green Lifestyle says:

    It’s my first time on your blog and I will be returning and subscribing!

  8. Great post, thanks for the info!

  9. To get more info on choosing the correct milk container (paper, plastic or glass), check out the following story.

    http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc/122/milk

  10. I never knew that they had such a hard time with milk cartons before. When I do buy milk I buy local ones like The Farmer’s Cow, http://www.thefarmerscow.com/ , or Rhody Fresh, http://www.rhodyfresh.com/.

    Now I’m curious if those actually get recycled when I put them in our cans, bottles, and plastics container.

  11. we also are lucky enough to have a local dairy (Maple View Dairy in central NC) who uses glass bottles that you pay a deposit on and return when empty for your refund. It’s great: very little plastic is used (only the caps/seals and the handles on the larger bottles), it’s local, and when these containers reach the end of their life cycle (e.g., breakage), they are fully recyclable!

  12. Uhoh. I live in PA and my family has been putting our milk cartons in with the recycling since we moved here (a year ago).

  13. I’ve been doing some research on expanded recycling programs in my area, especially ones that take milk cartons. There is a farm that does composting for the Los Angeles Unified School district – San Joaquin Composting (www.mccarthyfarms.com). The school district has been recycling milk cartons and food waste since 1991.
    Here is a link to some of the CA schools programs
    http://www.ciwmb.ca.gov/Schools/WasteReduce/Models/Districts.htm#LosAngeles

  14. Hi im doing a project at the moment that requires me to design a plastic milk cartin opener like the ones on existing prducts but better and compleatly re-sealable. I was wndering if anyone conld post any problems or solutions you might have to the existing openers.
    thanks a lot.

  15. Tracey Rennie says:

    Another idea for all those milk cartons is to call your local Children’s museum, science museum, etc., and see if they have any uses for them. Many times they will take them and do crafts of some sort with them. At least the are used again for something!

  16. Hi, Your article makes good reading, but I have a question which I hope someone out there can answer. Why can we not use cartons without a plastic lining (or aluminium) – wouldnt they work adequately with just a wax lining? This way, surely, they would be far more recyclable.

    Would be interested in any responses to this.

    Thanks in anticipation
    Sam, Birmingham UK

  17. Thank you so much for the information. I’ve been trying to find places to take my tetrapaks. Currently there is only one place I can find in an area of million people (Chicago). I’d like to join the effort in getting more communities to recycle these milk containers. Let me know if there’s any way I can help.

    Paul

  18. REDUCE, reuse… recycle! If you are going to drink milk, get it in glass bottles. If you want juice buy it as fruit (and its actually much healthier to eat it as fruit and drink water). When will Americans wake up to the fact that packaging should be absolutely minimal and zero waste? That includes the pollution from transporting and recycling plastics etc. Why does so much food come in containers that last 12 months and more when people go to the store, in their cars, several times a week?

  19. Dear Melissa,

    I am glad to have read your article which gives me a good coverage of carton recycling in the US. We are Tianyi Co. Ltd., an aseptic packaging recycling technology company based in China. As an
    innovator in aseptic recycling technology, Tianyi is exploring the possibility of ushering our technology to the US. As our understanding of the industrial process in the US is limited, we would be very honored to have your help on how we may proceed.

    If possible, I wonder whether you can give me your email, so I can send you a PPT introduction of our technology. My email is: [email protected].

    Thanks for your consideration and look forward to hearing from you.

    Lijun

  20. Hi,

    I went to go visit one of my relatives a few months ago, and she did the absolute smartest thing! She recycled milk cartons by washing them and pouring soup/broth contents into it to freeze. When she wants to use them, she just peels the paper off and uses those chunks when necessary! This is, of course, one time use, but it seemed so much smarter to me! I used to use ziploc bags to seal my food and liquids, but when I saw her doing this, I wanted to come back home and try it. Sad thing is, I dont have milk containers. I have jugs. i’m trying to change my lifestyle around, trying to completely remove dairy from my diet to drinking nut milks, but I have no containers to contain these wonderful nutrients. I was looking online to see where I can buy milk cartons, but by stumbling onto your website, if people are trying to recycle milk cartons, why not just send it to me? LOL that seems like it would be too much of a responsibility, but if you say we can reuse milk cartons like you say that we can, why not help in this way? I’m sure peeled cartons are lot more of a help recycling than boxed cartons. It’s one more thing to think about.

  21. Oh and one more thing:

    contents from: http://www.diylife.com/2009/09/07/unusual-uses-24-ways-to-reuse-milk-cartons/

    More ways to reuse milk cartons. Start from your own home!

    INDOORS

    Mega-sized ice cubes. Clean cartons thoroughly, fill with water and freeze. Remove cardboard and use them in the cooler for your next party, or let kids and pets play with them outside.

    Floor protectors. Moving? Cut the tops off cartons and use the bottoms to cover furniture legs. Slide your stuff around without scratching the floor.

    Paint containers. Cartons make ideal disposable containers for small painting jobs. Trim the carton to the appropriate size, then add paint. No rinsing is needed – just throw the carton in the trash when you’re done. Okay, this is wasteful … but it’s darn convenient.

    Drawer organizers. Cut lengthwise to fit utensils. Cut the bottoms to make one or two (or more) inch-deep squares. These make very handy in-drawer storage containers for small odds and ends.

    Dispose of cooking oil. Fill a carton with newspaper and pour oil inside. The newspaper absorbs the oil and the carton keeps everything neatly contained, so no leaks. When it’s been used several times, throw it away.

    Disposable cutting boards. Slit cartons open and spread them flat. Keep on hand for when you need to chop smelly items like fish. Or use them for draining fried foods. The paper side absorbs oil and the waxed side keeps oil from leaking through to the plate underneath.

    Liquid storage. Use cartons for storing liquids in the refrigerator or freezer. They are great for freezing soup, frozen desserts and whipped cream. When you need some, you don’t have to thaw the whole container: just slice off a chunk as big as you need, then peel the cardboard off and thaw.

    OUTDOORS

    Feed the birds in winter. Cartons are ideal for storing homemade suet or peanut butter-based mixtures. Pour hot mix into a carton. When it’s completely hardened, use a sharp carving knife to cut into inch-thick slices. Peel off the cardboard around edges. Each slice fits perfectly into most wire suet holders.

    Seed starter. Cut cartons in half lengthwise and punch drainage holes in the bottom. Fill with potting mix. Now you’re ready to grow some seeds!

    Bug stopper. Keep bugs off your baby veggie plants: cut tops and bottoms off cartons and push them into the soil around the plants. This cardboard collar makes it hard for slithery bugs to get near those tender shoots.

    Toe guard. Camping? Try using bottoms of cartons as tent peg covers. They’ll help prevent painful stubbed toes.

    Weight. Fill cartons with sand or pebbles. Punch holes in tops. Use them to weigh down a tarpaulin or drop cloth when it’s windy. Great if you’re out of spare bricks. Thread rope through the punched holes and tie them down for added security.

    Compost. Schools in LA collected 200 tons of school lunch milk cartons, which the city converted into compost and used to plant trees in bare urban areas. You can do the same on a small scale. Just shred them before adding to your compost container.

    CLEVER CRAFTS

    Bowling alley. Empty cartons make great (free!) bowling pins for kids. Let them spend a rainy afternoon decorating the “pins” with paint before the all-important first game.

    Coin purse. This is too adorable. Check out the photo at the top of my post.

    Blocks for baby. Wash and dry cartons, then stuff with scrunched up newspaper or junk mail, and tape shut. They make wonderful blocks for babies and toddlers to play with and practice their stacking skills.

    Candle mold. Trim carton to size. Anchor wick at the bottom on the inside, making sure the wick is a couple of inches longer than the container is tall. Pour hot wax inside and let it set.

    Ice candle mold. Coat the inside of a clean carton with cooking spray. Anchor the wick inside, then fill with ice cubes. Pour in hot wax. The melting ice creates beautiful formations in the wax.

    Plant pots for kids. Trim cartons to size and decorate with paints or old wrapping paper. Whatever you think your tots will have fun with. Fill with potting soil and plant with cheerful annuals. Water flowers regularly and give them lots of sun if you want them to survive past next week.

    Bird feeder. An easy homemade feeder that encourages kids to learn about birds. Cut a hole in a carton and insert a piece of dowel for a perch just below. Fill with seed and hang from a branch.

    Decorative bird house. A great craft idea for kids or adults. Decorate a clean carton however you like. Cut holes and decorate by gluing little craft “birds” into the doorways or on top. Use twigs, raffia and moss to create their “nests.”

    Pencil holder or vase. Clean and trim old cartons, then decorate with paints, papers, ribbon, glitter – or whatever catches your eye. Use them as pencil holders or even as flower vases.

    Ginger bread house. Very young kids don’t have the dexterity to work with real gingerbread house kits. So let them use cartons for a firm foundation. Just clean and trim a carton, then let the kids glue ginger cookies onto the sides, using white icing for “glue.” Add candy, pretzels etc for added decorations.

    Doll house or toy town. Each carton can become a room or tiny house in your child’s imagination. Help him/her cut the sides out of cartons and decorate the insides. Glue them together to make a house … or a whole town.

  22. Check out this website to see if your city allows carton recycling: http://recyclecartons.com/

    Plain and simple :)

  23. While I am a huge recycler and huge proponent of using something that can be used again, paper cartons are now, and have been for years, coated in plastics. Layers of thin plastic that cannot be removed before recycling, and plastic that does not degrade in the ground. This is direct poison into the earth that kills those organisms that we depend on to decompose our compost.
    Please do research on articles like this before the fact, this is the main reason why milk cartons are not recycled in most municipalities, they kill the earth. Use glass.

  24. Several other chemicals are used to make milk cartons. One is oxygenated chlorine, which bleaches the wood pulp. Other chemicals specific to each manufacturer are added to the paper to add strength. Chemical pigments in the ink are used for the printing process as well.

    from:http://www.madehow.com/Volume-4/Milk-Carton.html

    The above does not seem a good idea for compost. Although, here in San Francisco our recycling program accepts milk cartons into the compost. So believing that cartons were still coated with wax, I have been throwing them in the compost. Now that I know the coating is plastic and not wax, I’m wondering what to do. One can’t always afford to buy bottled milk (I live on less than $200 a month.) Although I often do anyway. Regardless, I am anxious for a solution to the milk carton problem. Most people buy cartons and the problem needs to be solved.

  25. Well, this is an old post, but to bring the comments up to date as of 10/27/2011 the problem continues in most of LA county and Kern county. I’m in the business of waste & recycling equipment sales and just visited a Correctional Facility in Kern about their food waste. They throw out 180,000 milk cartons a month (8oz cartons) and that is not enough for the local compost company to bother to pick up. They want to recycle them, but can’t find a hauler or recyclers to do it.

  26. National Geographic should hand out “green awards” to cities that fund milk carton recycling. Good idea, eh?

  27. I live in Alberta, Canada. A few years ago the provincial government did the right thing and put a deposit on all beverage containers including paper cartons and plastic bottles – 10 cents for containers one liter or less and 25 cents on containers over a liter. Anyone who throws one away is throwing away money. Needless to say I return all of my milk and juice containers. It is unfortunate that more governments do not enact such legislation as it would certainly cut down on the amount of paper and plastic waste thrown into the garbage.

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