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.