Cartons are recyclable!
Contrary to what some may think, cartons are not wax coated. What you may see as wax on a carton is actually a thin layer of polyethylene (plastic). Made mainly from paper, a renewable resource from responsibly managed forests, they can be recycled into new products. The long, bleached, virgin fibres from which cartons are made are a highly sought-after resource in the manufacturing of new paper-based products.
How are we doing?
As of January 2020, the national blended carton recycling-recovery rate was 58%*. This is up from 26% in 2008.
Access to beverage carton recycling (the percentage of the Canadian population who can recycle cartons in their community) is approximately 95%.
Carton recycling access and carton recycling rates vary across the country. Click on a particular province or territory to learn more.
*Some jurisdictions report a recycling rate while others report a recovery rate. For this reason, we cannot report a uniform national recycling or recovery rate.
Recycling a product or packaging at the end of its useful life also reduces the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) compared to landfilling. For example, the 10,730 tonnes of cartons that were recycled in Ontario in 2017 resulted in about 43,000 tonnes of C02e avoided, compared to the disposal scenario. This is equivalent to removing 9,500 passenger cars from the roadway each year.
Recycling means reducing waste – breaking down an old product and using it for something new. By recycling, you are conserving energy and natural resources as well as protecting the environment. The demand for recycled paper from cartons decreases the strain on natural resources and provides a market for recycled goods.
Carton Council of Canada is committed to increasing carton recycling, but we can’t do it alone. We need the collaboration and support of all stakeholders in the carton recycling value chain – sorters, municipalities, government agencies and consumers – to avoid that cartons end up in disposal sites. The good news is that there is something in it for everyone when it comes to carton recycling. As a consumer, you can help keep cartons out of disposal sites by participating in the recycling program available to you. If you live in a community where cartons are collected along with other recyclables as part of residential recycling program, make sure to follow the sorting and set-out instructions provided your municipality. If you live in a province or territory where cartons are collected through a deposit return system, make sure to bring back your cartons to the depot located closest to you. Click on the map above to learn more.
How are cartons collected for recycling?
Cartons are recovered under different systems across the country, including via residential collection programs – some of which are entirely or partially funded through stewardship fees, others funded entirely via the municipal tax base – and through beverage container deposit systems. In some provinces, both types of systems co-exist. The content of the carton (juice, milk, or non-beverage) sometimes determines the system by which they are collected. Refer to the Get Involved Section for information on how cartons are collected where you live.
How are cartons recycled?
The carton recycling value chain is similar to that of other recyclables. In jurisdictions where cartons are collected via a residential collection programs, cartons are collected along with other recyclable materials. They are transported to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where they are sorted and baled. From there, they are sent to a paper mill or to a facility that manufactures sustainable building materials.
In jurisdiction where cartons are collected via a deposit return system, cartons are typically hand-sorted at the depot, and then sent off to be recycled through either of the two paths described below.
A video showing both recycling paths that cartons can take is available here.
Path 1: Consumer products
Cartons are packed together and sent to a paper mill. At the paper mill, cartons are added to a large machine called a Hydrapulper – essentially a giant blender – that uses water to break the cartons down into their component parts. Cartons are separated into paper, plastic and aluminum. The pulp is used to make paper products such as paper towels, tissue and office paper. The residual plastic and aluminum can be sent on for further recycling, such as producing ceiling tiles or wallboard, or can be used for energy to fuel the paper mill.
Path 2: Building materials
Instead of a paper mill, cartons can also be sent to a recycling company that turns cartons into building materials. Cartons are shredded, then heat is applied and they are pressed back together into large sheets – Like a panini press made of shredded cartons!
About 30 cartons can be made into a single 2’x2’ ceiling tile, while roughly 400 cartons make up a full wallboard.
In 2014, half (50%) of the polyethylene/Aluminum (polyAl) by-products from carton recycling at mills were recycled globally. Commonly, the recycled polyAl component is converted into a commodity in the form of pellets (the pellets are typically used in the manufacturing of products such as pallets and flower pots), or as ceiling and roofing tiles.
The Carton Council is exploring solutions in both the US and Canada to ensure that the high value of the polyAl material is captured.
 References: tonnes of cartons recycled obtained from Stewardship Ontario’s 2019 Blue Box Fee Calculation model (based on 2017 data), available at https://stewardshipontario.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2019_PIM.xls. The tonnes of C02e avoided were calculated based on Environment Canada’s Waste GHG Calculator. The “other paper” category was used as a substitute for cartons.