Are Milk Cartons Recyclable?

Woman recycling milk carton

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Milk cartons of all types are recyclable, but like many products, whether they are in your city or town depends on your local recycling facilities. For many years, various types of cartons were difficult to recycle because they were made up of layers of plastic, paper, and sometimes aluminum, but the good news is that today about 62% of communities in the U.S. are capable of recycling milk cartons.

Types of Milk Cartons

There are two main types of milk cartons: gable top (generally found in the refrigerated section) and aseptic (also known as "shelf stable" cartons because they sit on the shelf and don't need to be kept cold). Both cow's milk and alternative milks like oat, soy, rice, and others are found in both kinds of cartons, and aseptic containers also package soups, gravy, wine, juices, and lots of other liquid products.

The cartons you find in the refrigerated section are about 80% paper and 20% plastic (with a plastic layer on the outside and the inside). Aseptic containers have a different mix. While they can vary a little bit, on average they are made of layers of about 74% paper, 22% plastic, and 4% aluminum. These types of cartons are often mistakenly thought of as wax-coated, but wax hasn't been used on them for many years.

Although there are other types of cartons, such as take out and ice cream containers, those are made of different quantities of materials and may or may not be recyclable in your neighborhood. (Here we are only discussing the gable top and aseptic packages.)

Environmental Pros and Cons of Milk Cartons

Pros

The biggest advantage that cartons have over other kinds of packaging is that they are lightweight, averaging about 6% package to 94% product by weight. Cans are about 13% of the total weight of a product, and glass is even more (depending on the thickness of the glass and the product it contains).

That means that it's less expensive to ship food and drinks in cartons, and it also uses less fossil fuel for transportation.

Another energy-saving aspect of aseptic cartons is that the contents don't need to be refrigerated during shipping, at the store, or at your home, which helps conserve energy.

Cons

Unlike metal cans or glass containers, there are still many places where carton recycling isn't possible, which means the layers of plastic, paper, and aluminum may end up in the landfill.

How Milk Cartons Are Recycled

heat resistant gypsum board background made of pasteurized milk carton box
Heat resistant gypsum board made of pasteurized milk cartons. Prapat Aowsakorn / Getty Images

Cartons include high quality materials, all of which can be made into new products. The biggest challenge for recyclers is separating those components.

According to the Carton Council, an organization of leading carton makers, there are two ways cartons can be used after being recycled:

  1. Cartons can be packed together and sent to a paper mill, where they are put into a giant blender (called a Hydrapulper). That enables the paper to be separated from the plastic and aluminum. The resulting paper pulp is used to make paper towels, tissue, and printing paper. The plastic and aluminum can be made into ceiling tiles, wallboard, and other products.
  2. Cartons can be sent to a recycler that makes building products. Cartons are finely shredded, then pressed back into sheets (like a panini press). It takes about 400 cartons to make a 4 feet by 8 feet construction board.

How to Recycle Milk Cartons

There are a few different ways to recycle milk cartons, whether they are gable top or aseptic.

 Curbside

If you have curbside recycling of milk and other types of cartons, simply empty the container, rinse it out, and put it in your recycling bin. No need to crush the container, and in some places, this actually slows the recycling process down. Some areas encourage you to screw plastic caps back on and push straws inside (and the Carton Council recommends this), while others say not to include these items in your recycling, so check with your local recycler.

Mail It In

If you live in an area where these containers aren't recycled at curbside, you may be able to mail them in. Some communities have drop off days when they collect these containers and mail them in bulk. In addition, the Carton Council provides the following instructions and addresses to send your cartons for recycling:

  1. Make sure cartons are empty and dry. Keep the cap on and push any straws into the cartons. You can crush your cartons to save space.
  2. Address your cartons to one of the three locations listed below. Choose whichever location is closest to you. Include proper postage and write "cartons" on the front of your package.
  • Altogether Recycling, 645 W 53rd Place, Denver, CO 80216
  • Firstar Fiber, 10330 "I" Street, Suite 100, Omaha, NE 68127
  • Tidewater Fiber, 1958 Diamond Hill Road, Chesapeake, VA 23324
  • Emmet County Recycling, 7363 Pleasantview Road, Harbor Springs, MI 49740

Ways to Reuse Milk Cartons

Of course, you can always reuse milk cartons instead of recycling them. There are a number of ways you can take advantage of their unique packaging advantages for projects and crafts. If you use these and they get worn out, you can then recycle them.

Make Planters

Woman Taking Care of Plants in her Balcony Garden
hobo_018 / Getty Images

Since cartons are already water-resistant and easy to cut, they can make a great planter, especially for starters. You can cut them as tall or as short as you like, and you can paint the outside with nontoxic paint if you want them to look different — or just for fun.

Storage Containers

DIY gift box out of old milk carton
Robert Ruidl / Getty Images

Wash with soap and water, let thoroughly dry, and you can use the gable-top cartons for storing any number of dry items that you'd like to be able to easily pour. White sugar, rice, sprinkles, sunflower seeds, or anything that's small enough to "pour out" will work. You can open the gable top or use the spout with the plastic top that many of these containers have. You could paint and label your cartons however you like, to create a matching set, or illustrate what's inside.

Milk cartons can also be cut, decorated, and given a new life as showy containers for art supplies or as gift packaging.

Craft Projects

Winter feeder in the snow with bread for birds and woman hand.
Andrey Zhuravlev / Getty Images

You can DIY a very cute birdfeeder with just a couple of additional supplies (including birdfeed), make a lantern (or multiple lanterns) for summer parties, or even Halloween, or use clean cartons to package holiday gifts like cookies or snack mixes.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Should milk cartons be recycled as paper or plastic?

    Again, the rules vary by location, but if you are required to separate your recycling by material, it's typical to include milk cartons with plastic rather than with cardboard and paper items.

  • Are Tetra Pak containers recyclable?

    Tetra Pak is a popular packaging company that uses both aseptic (known as the Tetra Brik) and gable top (Tetra Rex) containers. Check the rules of your local waste management service to find out whether Tetra Paks are accepted curbside. If they're not, you can recycle them through the Carton Council.

View Article Sources
  1. "Carton Recycling Primer." Carton Council, 2015.

  2. "Carton Facts." Carton Council.

  3. "How to Recycle." Carton Council.