The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many aspects of our lives. Many of us are spending more time at home while social distancing, reducing the frequency of our grocery store trips, and noticing shortages of household essentials like toilet paper, to name a few. While the well-being of our communities must remain top of mind, we must remember that our welfare is intimately tied to the well-being of our planet too. Staying mindful of how to reduce, reuse and recycle as we spend more time at home is as important as ever.
Recycling your food and beverage cartons is one way to help preserve the health of our communities and our planet. Spending more time at home likely means more home-cooked meals, and more food and beverage cartons in your fridge and pantry like milk, cream, juice, soup, and broth. It also probably means you are buying and using more paper products, like toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels, from home than usual. Naturally, this results in more waste and more demand for these household paper products than usual.
The good news is that recycling your food and beverage cartons can help address all those issues. When recycled, the paper fiber from your cartons can be used to make paper products that are in high demand, like toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues, as people shelter at home. That means using foods and beverages that come in cartons and choosing to recycle them can keep your pantry stocked, reduce your waste, and even help prevent future shortages of paper products. While it might seem small, every carton you recycle helps supply manufacturers with the raw materials they need to keep producing these essential items and prevent shortages.
Tori Beckett, Vice President at Great Lakes Tissue Company in Michigan, shared why cartons are so vital to their operations, “We use more than 2,100 tons of recycled raw material per month. With all of the toilet paper shortages across the country, our operations are still at maximum capacity production and need all of the food and beverage cartons we can get our hands-on. We only keep a couple of week’s supply on hand and if the collections stop we do fear we will not be able to keep a sustainable operation running.”
How does your carton go from the recycling bin to your next roll of toilet paper? It starts when you make the choice to place your empty, used cartons in the recycling bin. Your recycling is then picked up from your home by a hauling company and brought to a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) by the truckload. At the MRF, mixed recyclable materials are sorted manually and mechanically (sometimes using robots powered by artificial intelligence!) to separate the cartons, plastics, paper, glass, and metal apart from each other.
Once the cartons are sorted apart, they are packaged into large bales and sold to paper mills, like Susana Fiber in Wisconsin, that process the cartons into paper pulp. Lastly, the recycled paper pulp is purchased by manufacturers to make new paper products like toilet paper, tissue, paper towels, writing paper, and more. Some companies, like Great Lakes Tissue in Michigan, source the sorted cartons directly and transform the cartons into new paper products at their own facility. Alternatively, the sorted cartons can be sold to companies like Continuous Materials that use the entire carton to produce eco-friendly building materials. And of course, all of this helps fight climate change too.
“Recycled food and beverage cartons continue to be a very important source of paper fiber for our mills. It is important for consumers to recycle their food and beverage cartons because the fibers in cartons are clean and of excellent quality to be used to produce the pulp needed to manufacture those essential items. Cartons miss the opportunity at a second life if they are sent to a landfill. Recycling your cartons is a small act that can have a big impact!” shared Michele Bartolini, Senior Marketing Director at Sustana Fiber.
Despite the widespread shortages and attention they received, results from a recent poll we conducted found that most consumers fail to make the connection between their recycling of paper at home and its value in providing manufacturers with the recycled paper to make new paper products. When asked how much impact recycling at home has on helping with paper shortages, 33% of consumers reported they thought recycling might have some impact on helping with the shortages, but they weren’t sure how much it really helped. While 18% felt recycling had no impact at all on alleviating shortages, and 13% were unsure and had not thought about the connection.
In most cities, recycling is still considered an essential service. This means you can continue to recycle your cartons — as well as other recyclable items — as you spend more time at home. While the COVID-19 response has impacted waste and recycling services in some areas, we encourage you to continue recycling as usual unless you are told otherwise. THANK YOU to all the people working hard to continue to bring these essential recycling services to residents across the country.
If recycling services are suspended in your area or if cartons are not accepted in your local recycling program, we encourage you to mail your recycled cartons to the addresses listed here. (This is also a great way to support the United States Postal Service during a time of need.)