Know Your Packaging

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Because of layers of material that can be difficult to separate, many containers for juices and broths have traditionally been destined for landfills. But recycling them is getting easier. KidStock/Getty Images

Natalie Jacewicz, a science writer based in New York City has this illuminating story on packaging:

In The Recycling World, Why Are Some Cartons Such A Problem?

Scoot over, cans; cartons are moving in on your shelf space. Specifically, the soft, light rectangular containers commonly associated with juice boxes — “aseptic cartons” to the carton literati.

“They’re growing in popularity,” says Jason Pelz, vice president of recycling projects for the Carton Council, an industry group. “Broth is predominantly in aseptic packaging now, and you see a lot of coconut water in it.”

Aseptic cartons pack several environmental upsides, with one big catch: Traditionally, these containers have been quite difficult to recycle. To take stock of the promises and challenges of this supermarket sensation, I talked to experts on all things carton.

Like any enigmatic celebrity, the aseptic carton has layers. Though lightweight, the exterior is composed of multiple coats of paperboard, plastic and aluminum. This type of carton has been around since the 1950s, according to Pelz, but for a long time was limited primarily to milk cartons in countries without refrigerated shipping.

The aseptic carton “has lots of environmental advantages,” says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s lightweight, and it typically doesn’t need to be refrigerated [until opened].”

Lightweight packaging requires less energy to ship than heavier material. The packaging versus product ratio — seemingly the packaging industry’s analog of dress measurements — is a dainty 7 percent packaging to 93 percent product by weight. By comparison, a steel can’s ratio is 13 percent packaging to 87 percent product.

The carton’s rectangular shape allows for close packing in transport, according to Pelz, which makes shipping more efficient. The shelf-stable cartons can also prevent food spoilage.

Alas, the aseptic carton has a tragic flaw. “There’s a real challenge in trying to recycle it, because you have all these materials that are essentially glued together,” explains Hoover.

Aseptic cartons aren’t the only type to face such challenges. The “gable-top” milk carton — a paper-based container plenteous in elementary school cafeterias — also has paper and plastic layers that are difficult for many recycling plants to separate.

In recognition of these difficulties, the Carton Council formed in 2009 to increase recycling capabilities for both aseptic and gable-top cartons in the United States…

Read the whole article here.

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