Beyond the Bin: The Full Carton Recycling Journey
Recycling your food and beverage cartons, like juice, milk and water cartons, starts with three easy steps: 1) Empty your carton; 2) Place it in the recycle bin; and 3) Take it to the curb. But what happens after that? This fall, Carton Council invited social media influencers and carton champions from Minnesota and Wisconsin to join us and see firsthand what happens to their cartons once picked up from the curb. The group toured Dem-Con, a materials recovery facility, and Sustana’s Fox River Fiber Mill, a fiber recycling facility, to learn about the full carton recycling journey.
Our Dem-Con tour group included Amanda Paa, Jewel Weah, Karly Gomez, Molly Budde, Natasha Holmes and Julie Evink. Our Sustana tour group included Adam Lukas, Benjamin Gorges, Leepa Mittal, Maureen Fitzgerald, and carton champions, Scott Marsden and Jennifer Zurawski from Westwood Elementary School. We’re sharing what they learned so you can reap the benefits of this one-of-a-kind tour, too.
What happens after you recycle your cartons?
From the curb, your cartons and other recyclables are picked up and brought to a materials recovery facility (MRF) like Dem-con. At the MRF, your cartons are separated from other recyclables and compressed into large bales.
At Dem-Con, we saw exactly how cartons are sorted from other recyclables in this 3 step process:
1. Single-stream sorting: Once all recyclables arrive at the facility, they are passed through a series of conveyor belts that sort materials into four categories: fibers (including cartons, newspaper, cardboard boxes), plastic, metals and glass.
2. Fiber sorting: Next, all recovered fiber materials are sorted apart from each other manually and using an artificial intelligence (AI) robot. Hot Dawg, the staff named AI robot, detects cartons from the rest of the fibers and tosses them aside. It’s easiest for Hot Dawg to detect cartons that haven’t been crushed which is why it’s best not to crush your cartons before recycling them.
3. Making bales: Lastly, all the sorted cartons are compressed into large blocks called bales. The bales are then sold to paper mills.
What happens once the cartons have been sorted into bales?
The cartons are sold to facilities like Sustana’s Fox River Fiber Mill in bales and leave the mills as large sheets of fiber to be repurposed into new consumer paper products. We watched the fascinating process unfold at Sustana. It was remarkable for everyone to learn just how much of a carton can be recycled into something new!
1. Separate paper fiber: The bales of cartons are first added to a pulper (like a giant washing machine) to separate the plastic lining of the carton from the paper fibers.
2. Cleaning the fiber: Next, a high-density cleaner and a series of screens remove contaminants from the fibers, such as inks and stickies. This results in a clean paper pulp (like paper soup).
3. Creating new paper sheets: Lastly, a wet lap machine removes excess water and transforms the fibers into large sheets. These sheets are then baled and sold to new facilities who use the sheets as their raw materials to produce tissue, writing paper, paper towels, food containers, and more. Fun fact: Sustana is the only mill in the US that produces FDA-compliant recycled fibers that can be used for direct-contact food packaging.
A second option for bales of cartons is to be sold to Continuus Materials, a company that turns recycled food and beverage cartons into environmentally friendly building materials. At Continuus, the entire carton is recycled into environmentally friendly building materials such as roof cover board, exterior sheathing, wallboard and floor underlayment like this.
Carton Recycling: It’s as easy as 1-2-3!
Keeping food and beverage cartons out of landfills starts with you:
1. Empty your carton
2. Toss it in the recycling bin, and
3. Take them to the curb
While it’s as easy to recycle your cartons at home, we hope this behind-the-scenes tour of the full carton recycling process opens your eyes to just how much potential lives in each carton you recycle! More recycled cartons means more recycled fibers to make new paper products and keep mother earth happy.