Package Recycling Myths Slow Progress in U.S.

Advocates Call for More Recycling of Milk Cartons and Water Bottles

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Posted: Wednesday, October 12, 2011 4:35 pm | Updated: 10:51 am, Thu May 15, 2014.

If there are myths behind recyclable containers and the markets available for them, they were cleared up for an audience of solid waste and recycling professionals last week. Speaking at the annual Iowa Recycling & Solid Waste Management Conference in Dubuque Oct. 5 were presenters Jim Birmingham, recycling coordinator for the Carton Council based in Milwaukee, Wis., and Susan V. Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Culver City, Calif.

Birmingham's objective was to hail a recyclable product new in the industry: cartons. These include gabled cartons like milk cartons, which must be refrigerated, and aseptic cartons like those that contain chicken broth, meant to be stacked and stored in a cabinet and refrigerated after opening. He said both types of packaging once contained wax, making them poor candidates for recycling. Today, wax has been replaced by polyethylene, which does not interfere with recycling. The aseptic carton additionally includes many layers of aluminum to block out light - the principle cause of spoilage.

Carton recycling is widely practiced in Europe, Birmingham said, but in North America there are only nine paper mills that accept the product. The Carton Council, formed by four carton manufacturers - Elopak, Evergreen Packaging, SIG Combibloc and Tetra Pak - is committed to increasing carton recycling in the U.S. By promoting both recycling technology and local collection programs, the Carton Council intends to limit the amount of cartons that end up in a landfill. Since 2009, the Carton Council has pushed to expand carton recycling access and end markets through "innovative collaborations with facilities, communities, service providers and paper mills." As a result, cartons are being recycled by more than 35 million households in 40 states.

The Carton Council works closely with communities, recycling facilities and service providers to add cartons to their programs by providing financial resources and technical assistance. Their first step was to work with paper mills, negotiating with them a financial strategy to encourage acceptance of cartons without incurring financial harm if the market should change. Once that piece was in place, the Council began encouraging Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) to consider what they would need to add carton recycling to their facility, be it optical scanners for sorting, a reconfigured or extended sorting line, or other technical assistance. According to Birmingham, cartons can be processed as part of a dual- or single-stream facility. The other players in the recycling process can be involved, too, Birmingham said. Haulers can let MRFs know that they will accept cartons for recycling, and brokers can be willing to assist in the creation of this new supply chain.

Birmingham said it is important for all consumers to have access to carton recycling. Right now cartons represent only 1 to 1.5 percent of trash going into landfills, but that number is expected to grow. Products such as bottled water, bottled sports drinks, and even bottled wine are beginning to move into carton packaging. He'd like to avert waste by educating consumers that the end product for recycled cartons includes bath tissue, plastic lumber, and even flower pots. To date, more than 30 million households in 28 states have access to recycling programs that accept cartons such as milk cartons, juice boxes, and other liquid packaging including soups, broths and soy milks.

Handling cartons as a distinct commodity represents a potential revenue stream for municipalities, Birmingham said. But carton recycling is not available in many areas, even though in some places consumers already put cartons into their curbside recycling. Birmingham said consumers are not told that the mills are allowed a five percent throw-out allowance. That means those cartons will ultimately wind up in a landfill, after yet another trip in a truck.

As a way to encourage carton recycling, the Council works with school districts. Kids go through a lot of cartons at meal times, and starting an education program in the schools paired with actual recycling practice is a way to involve children in sustainable practices, he said.

Susan V. Collins of the Container Recycling Institute also dispelled myths about the specific environmental benefit of recycling. She said the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released when a product is manufactured and used should be the measure that counts when calculating landfill diversion, not the tonnage of the waste. Collins said 37 percent of greenhouse gases are generated during production of goods and seven percent during the use of those products. She also said that tonnage is a dated way of assessing landfill use. Ultimately, things don't contaminate soil or cause environmental harm because they weigh a lot. "Landfills don't fill up by weight, but by volume," she said.

Take polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic  beverage containers as an illustration. In the three years between 2002 and 2005, sales of bottled water in the U.S. nearly doubled, from 15 billion units sold to 29.8 billion. Those beverage containers are six percent of waste in landfills by weight, but 17 to 20 percent when measured by greenhouse gases, she said.

Collins said producing a PET beverage container requires raw materials extraction, the manufacture of chemicals, the manufacture of the bottle itself, the creation of the contents, its transportation to store, refrigeration in the store and in the consumers home, and so forth. This chain of events, she said, has a "huge environmental impact in the front end." But if consumers used a 100 percent recycled bottle, they would put 60 to 70 percent less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere for the creation of that bottle than if it were made from virgin resources.

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) is a non-profit organization with a mission to make North America a global model for the collection and quality recycling of packaging materials. They envision a world where no material is wasted, and the environment is protected. They work to create collaboration between companies and people to create a strong, sustainable domestic economy.

That economic focus means considering the complexity of different sorts of source materials and understanding that they aren't all recycled at the same rate or for the same cost. Collins said there are 22 different material types upon which scrap value is set, ranging from sorted office paper to more obscure items like plastic laminate. "Packing is highly complex," she continued, citing items such as dog food bags that have a strip of paper across the top and a pull string for opening, or the small dental floss packets that include at least two types of plastic resin along with a tiny aluminum device for cutting the floss.

"Recycling rates differ depending on the type of item, and the cost of what it takes per ton to recycle and reuse materials varies widely." Collins also said the financial waste of PET water bottles going into landfills adds up to $2.5 billion essentially going into landfills every year. If recycled, that material could be used in items like strapping, or plumbing. And during a recent world-wide cotton crop failure, Collins said, many clothing manufacturers were using recycled PET as a substitute product.

A world-wide focus means noticing that in Europe, recycling rates are much higher than in the U.S., and consumers have the opportunity to drink from refillable bottle that are returned to the manufacturer, sterilized, filled, fitted with a new cap and label, and distributed to consumers. But in the U.S. annually, Collins said, 215 billion drink containers are sold, of which 141 billion are wasted. Americans consume 721 bottles and cans of drinks per person every year, for an average of two per day, per person. While beverage sales increased, recycling rates decreased from 41 to 34 percent, Collins said. She explained the gap pointing out most of these beverages are being consumed at work or on the road, not at home where people are near their convenient recycling containers.

"If we were to recycle those 141 billion wasted containers, we'd save enough energy to power 3.5 million homes for a year. We would also reduce the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as if 3.3 million cars were removed from the road," she said.

CRI is a strong supporter of deposit laws affecting bottles and cans. Processors also advocate for this method because it results in higher quality materials with fewer contaminants. Processors say that for every 100 tons of material they buy, they may use only about 73 tons, throwing the rest out, transporting it in another truck to another landfill. Economically this is difficult and unsustainable. Collins and the CRI champion bottle deposits also because they encourage consumers to recycle. "If a 10-cent deposit were placed on all beverages (excluding dairy) throughout the United States, an 80 to 90 percent recycling rate could be achieved across the board."

The Iowa Recycling & Solid Waste Management Conference is hosted annually by the Iowa Recycling Association and the Iowa Society of Solid Waste Operations.

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