Q&A /

How Connecticut is Adding More Cartons to the Recycling Bin


Ask a friend why it’s important to recycle and they’ll likely tell you it’s good for the environment. While that’s true, they might not know that it’s also good for the economy and essential to creating new materials. Seeing an opportunity to increase residents’ motivation to recycle, the RecycleCT Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the rate of recycling and reuse in Connecticut, launched a new What’s IN, What’s OUT recycling education campaign in the fall of 2020. The campaign built off of previous What’s IN, What’s OUT campaigns that began in 2017. We caught up with Sherill Baldwin, environmental analyst in the Sustainable Materials Management group at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environment Protection, to learn why this campaign took on so much significance this year.

Carton Council (CC): What inspired RecycleCT to launch the What’s In, What’s out campaign? 

Sherill (S): Connecticut had not conducted statewide promotion or education of recycling since the mid to late 1990’s, largely due to budget constraints, so we knew we were overdue. Since that time, Connecticut has introduced a universal list that indicates what can and can’t be recycled across the state. What goes into the recycling bin isn’t decided arbitrarily – these are recyclables that the Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) in our state have the ability to sort into individual categories (paper, plastic, glass, cartons, etc.) and then sell to another company to transform into new materials. Following this list is so important because it ensures we keep “non- acceptable” materials out of the recyclables. The more they get mixed in, the harder it is for MRFs to sort the recyclables correctly and sell them, making the whole process less efficient and more costly. Our hope with running this campaign is that residents feel more confident in how to recycle right, understand their role in the larger recycling process, and recognize the many benefits of recycling for our environment and our economy.

CC: Why was it important to include food and beverage carton recycling in the What’s IN, What’s OUT campaign?

S: We wanted to draw special attention to food and beverage cartons because school cafeterias generate a lot of them and we know there is a gap in awareness that cartons are recyclable. Cartons are “IN” in Connecticut because our MRF operators are able to sort them and then sell them to other companies to transform into new products. This is especially important during the pandemic, because manufacturers can use the paper from recycled cartons to make new in-demand paper products like toilet paper, paper towels, and tissue paper. We’re also very excited because we have a new manufacturer in Connecticut that uses food and beverage cartons to make roofing tiles. A lot of reasons for food and beverage cartons to go into the recycling bin!

CC: Has recycling in Connecticut been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? 

S: We were lucky that our Governor declared waste and recycling services as “essential” so our services didn’t significantly change. However, we recognized that people were spending time in different places and may need to think about recycling in ways they hadn’t before. For example, during a “normal” year, many of our recycled cartons come from school recycling programs that collect lots of juice and milk cartons from students’ meals. Pre-pandemic, we intended to focus the campaign at schools to increase the number of schools that separate milk cartons from their cafeteria waste. However, once COVID hit we quickly realized that school would be different and that school lunches might be eaten at home. As a result, we made it a priority to inform parents that the small milk and juice cartons they often send to school with their children are recyclable at home too, just like regular sized cartons.

CC: What are the most common questions you receive about recycling? 

S: I receive a lot of comments from folks sharing how “they didn’t know” something was recyclable or “how the list of recyclables is always changing.” I remind people that we are all learning together, and we can only do our best and work to improve. An average of 30,000 new packaged goods hit the retail shelves every year. That’s a lot of new packages, that we’re all learning about together – some are obvious and some are not. I learn about them from residents or recycling coordinators and need to consult with our MRF operators – who will either tell me they’ve never seen the material and can’t sort it or sell it, or they’ve started getting a lot of it and can’t sort or sell it, or they are able to sort and sell them and therefore want more of it. For every new item, we make sure it can be sorted and sold to be turned into something new before we add it to the accepted recyclables list. We’re always seeking new ways to add recyclables to the list and create less waste.

What are recycling tips you’d like to share with families across Connecticut?

No bags. Please don’t bag your recyclables and don’t put bags in the recycling bin. As for cartons, put the cap back on the carton before placing it in the recycle bin. Otherwise the loose caps won’t get recycled.

A big thanks to you Sherill and the state of Connecticut for your leadership in making carton recycling an integral part of your community! Giving people the information they need to recycle with confidence is such an important part of the recycling process. Join Sherill and Carton Council in showing your commitment to recycling food and beverage cartons by taking the #RecycleYourCartons pledge here!