As China’s import restrictions have changed the market dynamics of the U.S. metal and paper scrap market and the scrap businesses across the U.S. are looking for new markets for recyclable, food and beverage cartons can still have a market in the U.S.
According to the Carton Council of North America and Evergreen Packaging, postconsumer cartons continue to be in demand and have good end markets, while markets for other scrap commodities are squeezing. China has never been a market for bales of grade No. 52 cartons from the U.S., so the restrictions will not have an impact on cartons recycling.
Cartons are made primarily of high-quality fiber that should not end up in landfills. As the cartons have multiple layers, they are considered complex items for recycling. However, they have tremendous after life use potential. Gable-top cartons for milk, cream, egg whites and other refrigerated products, are made mostly of paper with thin layers of polyethylene to hold in the liquid. Aseptic, or shelf-stable, cartons that package juice drinks, soups, wine and other non-refrigerated products contain a layer of aluminium to block out light and oxygen.
The collected grade No. 52 cartons have several domestic and international end markets. The layers in cartons are broken down and separated in a paper mill. The paper pulp is used to make new paper products. The polyethylene and aluminium can be used to generate energy or are sold to manufacturers that use them for lumber-board-like materials.
A second, growing end-market option is to convert the carton materials minus the paper to eco-friendly building and construction products. The polyethylene and aluminium components (including the caps and straws) act as a binding agent when combined with the fiber. The material is then used to make roof cover board, wallboard and other building materials.
The Carton Council recommends material recovery facilities (MRFs) to sort cartons into grade No. 52. If not sorted by themselves, cartons are generally baled with mixed paper, which reduces the recycling value.