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The Green Life: Recycling Challenge: Plastic Beverage Containers vs. Cartons

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March 02, 2012

Recycling Challenge: Plastic Beverage Containers vs. Cartons

Bob Schildgen is Mr GreenHey Mr. Green,

I have stopped purchasing Tropicana orange juice since they replaced their 1/2 gallon carton with plastic bottles. I wrote to them about this, and got a reply that the new, plastic container is made out of fully recyclable PET (#1 recycling code) plastic, and that PET is far more recyclable than cartons, and is accepted at far more curbside recycling programs. They also said that less than 5 percent of cartons are recycled, but that PET plastic has a recycling rate of over 30 percent. Is this correct? I find it difficult to believe that clear plastic cartons are more environmentally friendly than waxed cartons. Can you provide a clear answer?

—Stanley in Middletown, Connecticut

Surprising as it may be to us skeptics who see the juice glass half empty, Tropicana actually speaks the truth, or at least a three-fourths truth.

Many recycling programs do not accept juice and milk cartons. The problem with cartons is that they're coated with PET plastic (not wax, the coating of bygone days when kids would peel it off the cartons with their thumbnails — which may have been a better remedy for ADD than meds). This hybrid composition — cartons are actually 20 percent plastic — makes it difficult to separate and retrieve the original materials. The same difficulty bedevils those non-refrigerated “aseptic” cartons, which contain aluminum in addition to paper and plastic. It is true that PET plastic containers are recycled at a rate of 29.2 percent, according to the EPA’s latest data, while the carton recycling rate is only 6.5, according to the carton industry.

However, the situation is rapidly changing because the carton makers have come up with new methods to separate the paper from the plastic and metal in cartons. Because of this effort, about 35 percent of the country’s recycling operations now do accept cartons, almost twice as many a few years ago. The Carton Council, the carton industry’s organization, is promoting expansion of carton recycling, competing with all-PET containers for the hearts and minds of green consumers. That industries now fight for green customers is a welcome sign of environmental progress.

I contacted your local recycler, which assured me that it does indeed accept both types of cartons. Because there are so many differences in local recycling practices, the best way for anybody find out what their local recycler does and doesn’t want is to call them and ask, or to find out by checking the estimable recycling info resource, earth911.com. For local carton recycling in particular, you can check the Carton Council's listings.

Your underlying question about which container is best for the environment, all-PET or carton, is a topic I’ll address at a future date. Finding the answer may well be as tough as reaching a conclusion about the old “paper or plastic” question, but such fresh intellectual challenges do keep our wee little green minds growing.

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