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What We’ve Learned from 10 Years of Carton Recycling

As the world enters a new decade in 2020, we at Carton Council are also celebrating all that’s been accomplished in the last decade since our formation in 2009. Cartons have graduated from a little known recyclable to a valuable and sustainable source of material that can be transformed into paper products and building materials. We’ve seen big increases in the amount of cartons recycled, and even introduced robots that sort cartons from recycling using artificial intelligence. Here are our favorite stats:

  • In 2009, only 18% of U.S. households had access to food and beverage carton recycling programs. Now, nearly 61% of households have access to carton recycling, that’s a remarkable 238% increase since we formed 10 years ago.
  • In 2009, just 6% of used food and beverage cartons made it into the recycling bin in curbside recycling programs. Now, roughly 16% of cartons make it into the recycling bin in curbside recycling programs, a 166% increase.
  • Carton recycling programs now exist in 49 states, with more than 71 million U.S. homes able to recycle cartons via curbside or drop-off programs.
  • As of 2019, there are now 10,836 school based carton recycling programs around the country.

This progress was hard earned thanks to contributions from our partners at every level of the recycling industry across the country including community recycling coordinators, Materials Recovery Facilities, AMP Robotics, fiber production plants, consumer advocates, and more. And what drives us forward year after year? Lydia Campbell, recycling program specialist for Anoka County, Minn., Public Health & Environmental Services, explained it best, “As product packaging changes, the recycling market needs to adapt to fit growing needs… Cartons are a popular packaging style, and incorporating them into curbside recycling programs is an obvious choice. It’s a substantial material stream, and our residents are happy that they can participate and keep more resources out of landfills.”

While the benefits of carton recycling are clear to us, we live in challenging times where carton recycling is growing in some places and getting threatened in others. So while we’ve accomplished much, there is still a long road ahead to truly make carton recycling a universal practice in homes and schools across the country. As Jason Pelz, Vice President of Recycling Projects for the Carton Council, says, “When we set out to start the Carton Council, we viewed it as a marathon [and not a sprint].”

As we look ahead to the future of carton recycling, we’ve set a few aspiration goals to guide our next steps and show the world there is still much to hope for when it comes to carton recycling. Why send cartons to landfills when they provide valuable materials that can be transformed into new materials? Recycled materials like cartons put less strain on Earth’s limited natural resources and provide manufacturers with the raw materials to make new products.

Here’s what we hope for carton recycling in the U.S. by 2025: 

  • 75% of homes have access to carton recycling 
  • 25% of used cartons make it into recycling  
  • 16,254 schools with carton recycling programs

With the help of residents across the country, we’re confident we can reach these goals and make 2020 the start of the greenest decade yet. Will you join us? Just recycle your food and beverage cartons all year long so they stay out of landfills and can become new paper products or building materials.

To hear more from Jason Pelz about how we steered carton recycling forward in the past 10 years, check out his Earth911 podcast.