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There’s More to the Story of Carton Recycling

By Carla Fantoni, Vice President of Communications, Carton Council of North America

Recent research reveals that most consumers do not understand the connection between recycling and the production of new paper products

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Recycling is good for the planet.” In fact, you’ve probably seen it in our Carton Council materials. For decades, this sentiment has been the focus of many marketing and educational campaigns. It makes sense given we know that preserving the environment is a priority for many. New research by our team, however, reveals that we may have been missing an important part of the recycling story.

While most of the U.S. and Canada experienced widespread paper shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our research shows that most people do not understand the impact their recycling has on creating new paper products and making sure they are available on the shelves of their local stores. Take a look:

  • Only 33% of consumers thought recycling might have some impact on helping with the shortages, but they weren’t sure how much it really helped.
  • 18% felt recycling had no impact at all on alleviating shortages.
  • 13% were unsure and had never thought about the connection.

With nearly two-thirds of people not understanding the connection between recycling and the creation of new products, it’s time to evolve the standard recycling story. While people seem to be recycling at the same rate (56%), or even more (29%), since the pandemic began, there is an opportunity to boost motivation to recycle by showing the valuable role recyclables have in providing fiber for manufacturers to produce new paper products.

Results of a study by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Boston College further validate this approach. Their study found that helping people think about how recyclables become new products inspires them to recycle more. In the study, participants were asked to toss some scratch paper after receiving specific informational messaging. Participants who saw a recycling message highlighting recycled material being transformed into the same product – paper (80.5%), or a different product, a guitar (79.1%) – recycled more than participants who saw a generic recycling message not involving product transformation (50.9%).

So what does this mean we should be doing differently? Whether it’s an Instagram post from us or if you’re talking to a friend, we need to balance the motivation to protect the environment with the practical message that recyclables are an essential source of material to produce new everyday items. At its simplest, less recycling means fewer eco-friendly products on the shelf and more trash in the landfill.

Let’s look at a specific example: how cartons are recycled into toilet paper. During the pandemic, one of the biggest challenges facing toilet paper manufacturers has been where to source their paper. With the shift to people working from home, manufacturers no longer received large quantities of recycled office paper. As a result, manufacturers needed to rely more on other sources of paper. For many years now, recycled cartons have been an important source of paper for manufacturers producing paper goods. Knowing manufacturers were in even greater need of recycled paper, we started a social media campaign to alert people that recycling their cartons was more important than ever now in order to reduce household waste and help manufacturers meet the demand for toilet paper. Our hope was to create a message that emphasized the transformation of recyclables, provided a tangible goal to contribute to — keeping toilet paper stocked– and build trust in the recycling system.

Recycled cartons can be used to make tissue, paper towels and building tiles.

So how exactly 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 Sustana 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 Continuus Materials that use the entire carton to produce eco-friendly building materials.

Moving forward, you can expect to hear even more from us about how food and beverage cartons can be recycled and transformed into a vast number of items ranging from everyday paper items, to eco-friendly building materials. I hope this insight will become useful to you too as you navigate your own conversations with recycling skeptics and newbies. While the recycling industry certainly has its challenges, and the pandemic has only made them greater, we cannot underestimate the value that recycling plays in creating a sustainable circular economy. And you, as a consumer, have an important role to play by correctly recycling your cartons, along with all your other recyclables.