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Evergreen works in nationwide effort to promote carton recycling

If you ask the average person what kinds of packaging can go in the recycling bin, you’ll probably get a list full of plastic bottles, steel cans and aluminum, but paper cartons don’t usually make that off-the-cuff list.

A group of industry representatives calling itself the Carton Council of North America is hoping to change that. 

“We really do have a vision that those packages are recyclable, and we want to be sure that there is that capability in communities across the country,” said Derric Brown, sustainability director at Evergreen Packaging in Canton. 

Evergreen, like the other five companies represented on the council, produces paper that is later made into cartons for milk, orange juice, soup broth and plenty of other products that make their way onto grocery store shelves across the country. This kind of paper can be recycled into everything from office paper to tissues to ceiling panels. It doesn’t need to be thrown away, but often it is. 

“The challenge is how they’re handled,” Brown explained. 

Most paper uses two-dimensional paper fibers, but paper cartons use three-dimensional fibers. What that means is that cartons don’t cooperate when put through the same equipment as other types of paper. 

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So, one priority for the Carton Council is to help recycling facilities across the country stock up on the infrastructure they need to process paper cartons. Because, if there’s no demand from recycling processors for discarded cartons, then communities have no place to sell the collected recyclables, and there’s no point in collecting them. By helping companies with infrastructure needs, the demand for the raw material — the carton — increases. 

The strategy’s been getting results.  When the council formed in 2009, only 18 percent of households in the U.S. had access to carton recycling. 

“Today, there is 52.4 percent access,” Brown said. “We’ve come from 18 percent access in 2008 to 52.4 percent.”

Now, 46 states, including North Carolina, have access to carton recycling, as do 77 of the country’s largest 100 cities. 

Of course, Brown said, “there’s a difference between ‘can’ and ‘do.’” Just because somebody has access to carton recycling in their community doesn’t mean they’ll take advantage of it. 

So, another priority for the project is community outreach. Brown and his collaborators have been traveling everywhere “from Miami to Anchorage to Honolulu” to help communities get the word out about carton recycling, getting buy-in from residents and boosting recycling numbers. 

“We’ve talked to pretty much all the different communities in Western North Carolina, and we’re still working to make carton recycling a reality in all the communities in Western North Carolina,” he said. 

That hasn’t gone unnoticed. Carton recycling has increased 177 percent since 2009, according to the council’s website, 

But not everyone is there yet. The council’s website provides a lookup feature for carton recycling — according to the site, carton recycling is available in Haywood and Macon counties, but not in Swain or Jackson. Buncombe, Transylvania and Graham counties take cartons, but not Clay, Cherokee or Madison. 

But the goal is for capability — and participation — to continue expanding. The Carton Council’s school program is one way to get there. The program is designed to help schools get a recycling program going, which in addition to all the benefits typically associated with recycling teaches children that cartons are one of those “of course we recycle that” kinds of items. Those children then grow up into the adults who shop for groceries and decide how to deal with household waste. 

Some of that attitude is already taking hold, Brown said, at least when it comes to packaging in general. 

“When you look at packaging today and consumer packaging,” Brown said, “consumers expect it to be recyclable.”



Get in the carton game

Local governments, schools, businesses and individuals looking to learn more about carton recycling will find plenty of information at the Carton Council of North America’s websites, and In addition to fact sheets and action-oriented information, the site includes a lookup feature that allows visitors to check out carton recycling opportunities in their zip code. 

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