YES! Food and beverage cartons are recyclable!

Schools are a Great Place to Get More Cartons


More than four billion food and beverage cartons are consumed in schools every year. The average U.S. school of 545 students consumes around 75,000 cartons each year. As schools work harder to be green and reduce the amount of waste, recycling food and beverage cartons is a win for everyone.

School recycling programs encourage children to learn about the importance of recycling and enable communities to recover larger quantities of cartons.

If your local facility accepts food and beverage cartons, we encourage you to consider adding cartons to your existing school recycling program. If your school does not have a recycling program, you can still start a carton recycling one. Our School Program Start-Up Guide and our School Best Practices Guide contain lots of helpful information to get you started and establish the best process. You can find additional resources to help start a program or promote an existing one to ensure everyone participates at the bottom of the page, including succesful case studies from Madison, WI and Missoula, MT. You can also sign up for our newsletter for tips and tricks on school recycling.

Implementing a food and beverage carton recycling program can make a huge difference. In some cases, the benefits can even include financial savings. In all cases, the benefits are environmental and educational. By adding food and beverage carton recycling, Westwood Elementary School increased their recycling to 8-9 bags of recyclables a day. Before adding carton recycling, the school tossed 10-12 bags of garbage each day. Now, their garbage has been cut to just 1-2 bags a day!

February 2021

School Sustainability Programs: Thriving in Changing Times

Wisconsin Integrated Resource Management Conference

In March 2020, schools everywhere shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, dismissing students from in-person instruction did not mean that school sustainability programs had to become dormant. Learn how three school districts used this unusual opportunity to improve their sustainability programs and build new partnerships to tackle recycling.

The Benefits of Carton Recycling

Implementing food and beverage carton recycling programs helps schools reduce the amount of waste produced, resulting in financial savings from fewer trash pickups. Adding carton recycling also helps teach students important lessons in environmental stewardship. When children become recyclers at school, they often take the lessons learned and make recycling a regular habit at home. Finally, carton recycling in schools helps the environment. Check out how carton recycling can help improve the environmental impact of your school with our Recycling Impact Calculator.

Adding carton recycling to our existing cafeteria recycling program gave us an opportunity to reinvigorate all of our recycling initiatives. While this results in significantly more materials diverted from the landfill, more importantly, it gives us an opportunity to reinforce environmental education every day with the students at lunch. Looking back over my tenure leading environmental programs at the school, carton recycling gives us the single biggest bang for the buck – for us the ‘bang’ is the number of children impacted with environmental education and the ‘buck’ is the effort to implement. I attribute the school’s recognition as the Elementary School winner of the 2015 Keep Texas Beautiful Sadie Ray Graff Educator Award in part to the energy carton recycling brought to all environmental programs throughout Green Elementary.

Kelly McDonald
Allen Independent School District, Texas

How to Add Carton Recycling to Your School

Looking to get a carton recycling program started?

  1. Check with your local materials recovery facility (MRF) to confirm that food and beverage cartons are accepted in your community. Discuss with your recycler the logistics surrounding picking them up at your school(s).
  2. Engage a team of administrators, teachers, principals and cafeteria and janitorial staff to be supportive. This can also include PTA or PTO members and students.
  3. Establish goals and estimate your program’s impact, assess what will be needed and anticipate any possible issues.
  4. Develop your process, including the set-up of recycling containers and buckets for excess liquids. Determine where to locate carton recycling stations in your school cafeteria(s). Make sure it is clear how and where students should place their cartons.
  5. Recruit advocates. The most successful programs include students working at these stations to help facilitate the recycling and dumping of excess liquids. Many schools utilize a “green team” composed of students and a teacher or parent to help organize the recycling program. The custodial staff is another valuable advocate because carton recycling programs often reduce the amount of liquid ending up in the trash, keeping things cleaner and easier to manage. We even have a Custodial Best Practices Guide with more tips and tricks.
It Helps to Have a Carton Recycling Champion or Advocate

It just takes one champion to get a recycling program started – and you never know who that person might be. School faculty, lunchroom and janitorial staff are good places to start, especially if you know they are interested in other environmentally friendly activities. School staff are usually appreciative of the program because once up and running, and it tends to make their jobs easier.

There may even be a parent or other volunteer interested in getting the program up and running. It’s a great way to engage students in sustainability efforts by having them get involved and help with collection.

The best bet for longevity is to get schools on board at the district level. However, if you feel that involves too much red tape in your community, start by working directly with an individual school. Implementing one program can help make it easier to sell to other schools or the district later.

The students love doing the recycling, everyone wants to help so we have to rotate the helpers. Students are so willing to help our school community by reminding others and collecting the cartons, ‘let’s keep our school clean’. The principal supported my ‘just do it, recycle’ point of view. Now everyone is on board.

Glennis Brady
Custodian, School #35, Rochester, New York

Launch and Promote, Promote, Promote

The next step to launching the program is making sure everyone knows how to recycle their cartons. Perhaps the principal can make an announcement that explains the new program and have people on hand during lunches to demonstrate the process. You may want to have a few volunteer students help “oversee” the program, especially in the beginning to help ensure students are remembering to recycle their cartons and dumping out the excess liquid.

Putting up posters around the recycling stations can also be very helpful. The Carton Council has materials to help educate about the program and provides recycling containers in some cases. Additionally, there are classroom activities for teachers to help educate and motivate surrounding recycling.

After you’ve launched the program, there will be a learning period where you will want to assess the results for ways to improve. For example, you may find it helpful to keep student volunteers on hand to manage the collection of cartons and dumping of the excess liquid. Communicate to everyone from time to time on the successes! For example, surrounding Earth Day, the principal could announce the impact of your recycling program.

Recycling is important to our family and I’m happy that the school program reinforces this and makes recycling a regular part of the kids’ routine. How great that the kids are encouraged to develop these good habits!

Kerry Fraser
parent from Toluca Lake Elementary School, Los Angeles, California

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