Cardboard and carton sleeve packaging in the food and beverage industry is fully recyclable. However, there is a misperception that cartons, lids or closures cannot be recycled.

We want to demystify this myth to encourage more consumers to recycle their cardboard sleeve packaging and preserve valuable materials, supporting the circular economy.

In the first part of our recycling myths series, we explore the important role that consumers have to play, how food, dairy and beverage cartons are recycled, and the types of products, such as trays of single serve entrees, ready meals, snack, dessert and dairy cups, canned tuna and fish, that can be produced from recycled materials.


Doing the recycling routine

More and more municipalities around the world are offering kerbside services, that is, central banks for the collection of used packaging from food, dairy and beverage products. However, they depend on the people who separate the packaging for recycling instead of putting it in the trash can with the general waste.

What is the routine for your breakfast in the morning? Maybe have a glass of juice, a cup of yogurt, or simply a microwavable ready-to-eat meals. Or maybe you add milk to your cereal. Then, you sit down to drink your coffee. And in the end, what do you do with the empty juice and milk containers that you have consumed? Do you separate them for recycling or put them in the common garbage?

This decision will determine the fate of your packaging and the valuable materials that make up it. If you separate them for recycling, the sleeves that safely provided the nutrition for your food can continue to generate a wide variety of new useful items, from cardboard to car parts.

We want more people to make recycling part of their routine to keep high-quality materials in circulation, avoid wasting valuable natural resources and reduce the environmental impacts of landfills.


How is cardboard sleeve packaging recycled?

Recycling rates are increasing year by year. In Europe, a recent survey revealed that 69% of consumers are recycling more waste and 48% of food, dairy and beverage cartons are now recycled.

Have you ever wondered what happens to packaging after it is disposed of in the recyclable trash?

Step 1. Collection

Cardboard sleeve packaging is usually collected for recycling along with other recyclable packaging. The lids and closures must be kept together and the straws must be completely inserted into the packaging to be recycled together with the box. Many local authorities offer collection services directly from their homes, but if there are none at your residence, you can leave empty sleeves at the central recycling banks for transportation to recycling plants.

Step 2. Separation

Cartons are automatically separated from other types of packaging at more than 1,500 sorting centers across Europe. Packaging machines using infrared technology identify them based on how they reflect light. Cardboard sleeves can also be sorted manually. This is often the first option when collection systems are initially introduced and the quantities to be sorted are still low. In some countries, manual collection and sorting is an important source of income for the local population.

Step 3. Transport

Once selected, the containers are packed and sent to specialized recycling paper mills. In Europe, there are more than 20 paper mills that process used cardboard sleeve packaging.

Step 4. Separation

At the recycling plant, the cardboard containers are fed into a giant mixer filled with water that rotates for about 20 minutes, separating the paper fibers from the aluminum and polymers (PolyAl). Then the extracted fibers are washed and sieved, ready for use in papermaking.

Step 5. Recycling

High-quality paper fibers recovered from cardboard sleeves are fed into a paper mill to create new paper and cardboard products (see below). The polymers and aluminum that are extracted from cardboard sleeves (sometimes called PolyAl) can be separated to generate new plastic and aluminum products, or recycled together to produce a robust compositional material. When adequate recycling facilities do not yet exist, polymers or PolyAl can be used as an energy source to replace the need for virgin fossil fuels.


A new life for used carton and cardboard packaging

All parts of a food, dairy and beverage carton packaging can be recycled.

The paper fibers, which account for approximately 75% of each food, dairy and beverage carton, remain long, strong and of high quality, even after they have been reused from used cartons. They can be used to make a wide range of new paper and cardboard products, including cardboard sleeves, paper bags, office paper and even tissues, which must remain sturdy when wet.

Small amounts of polymer and aluminum in cardboard sleeves can be recycled together to produce resistant products such as roof tiles and garden furniture. The polymer can be transformed into new plastic products, such as agricultural films, which are used to protect growing crops. Aluminum, in turn, can be used to create everything from car parts to coffee makers.

Recycled packaging stimulates ecological innovation. In Thailand, SIG introduced recycling by building a school canteen made almost exclusively from recycled cardboard sleeve packaging. More than 1.4 million cardboard containers were used to create the walls, ceilings and furniture of the ecological canteen.

ELITER Packaging Machinery uses cardboard sleeves in its innovative ESTRENA Wrap-Around Cartoning Machine, which can be used for all kinds of applications, from dairy cups, to ready meals and canned tuna or fish.

A new hygiene solution from ELITER Packaging Machinery uses all food-grade stainless steel construction with aluminum and industrial plastic parts so that the wraparound sleeve cartoner and sleever is in compliance with food safe serving standards.

Collection sleeves made from recycled cardboard are being used to promote the recycling of packaging at an amusement park in Mexico through a partnership between SIG partnership, SCTP and ELITER Packaging Machinery.

Now that we’ve seen how used cardboard sleeve packaging is recycled and what it can become, let’s see how it compares to other types of packaging in the second part of our recycling series.

Read more information about the plastic replacement, sustainable cardboard sleeve packaging, and sleeve packaging machines for dairy and food industry:

ELITER Packaging Machinery, packaging machinery manufacturer and global supplier of cartoning machine, wraparound sleever and film overwrapping machine.