Not all alternatives to single-use plastic are equal, and there’s one that doesn’t live up to the hype: paperboard beverage cartons. While it’s not obvious from looking at them, these cartons are not recyclable and therefore little better than plastic.

Boxed water is little better than plastic.

In November 2022, Arlington implemented a bylaw prohibiting the sale of single-use plastic bottles of water in sizes of 1 liter or less. Now when you walk into your favorite deli or convenience store, you may see water in aluminum cans instead of plastic bottles. That’s good news for reducing single-use plastic waste. However, the growing use of boxed carton beverage packaging is misleading and causing confusion.

Packaging confusion 

Boxed water packaging is marketed as an eco-friendly alternative. One brand’s website claims that their “cartons are made with 100% recyclable materials.” Another describes its “responsibly-sourced paperboard container” as “eco-friendly packaging” and “100% recyclable.” 

However, these cartons are made from a laminated mix of materials, including paperboard, plant-based plastic, aluminum, and polyethylene plastic film to act as a liquid barrier and help the box keep its shape. In Arlington and most other Massachusetts communities, cartons such as these—including the ones used for milk, soup, and juice—are non-recyclable. 

They are not recyclable

Recycling is a commodities business. Recycling processing centers will only accept materials they can sell. According to RecycleSmartMA.org, “[Boxed] cartons are made with multiple layers of plastic and paper (plus an aluminum layer in drink and soup boxes). To recycle them, they must be sorted and sent to a special mill that can separate the layers. There are currently only three mills in the U.S. that recycle cartons and the cost to sort, collect, and transport this material is prohibitive for most recycling facilities. In Massachusetts, there is only one Material Recovery Facility (MRF) located in Western Massachusetts (the Springfield MRF) that accepts cartons for recycling. The remaining MRFs in the state do not have the equipment to properly sort out cartons or storage space to accumulate enough cartons for a marketable load (which can take 6 months or more).”

For a local perspective, we talked to Gretchen Carey, a Sustainability Manager for Republic Services, Arlington’s recycling and trash contractor. She explained the issues with cartons: “They get flattened and end up as contamination in our paper pile. We need separate piles of paper and plastic. Because cartons are multilayered, they are not easily recycled and there is no local outlet (buyer) for this material. So, I am sorry to say that this material is trash in most of Massachusetts.” 

Boxed cartons: The not-so-green alternative

The bottom line? Even though boxed water is marketed as a green alternative, these cartons are non-recyclable landfill waste, so they’re not much better than the recyclable plastic bottles they’re replacing. 

To avoid recycling contamination, boxed cartons should go in the trash, not your recycle bin. Better yet, consumers can reduce waste by not purchasing them in the first place. Carry a reusable water bottle with you or keep one in your bag or car for when you’re on the go. If convenience products are needed, purchase water in aluminum or glass instead (which are 100 percent recyclable), and then bring the container home with you to recycle.

    

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