Column: Recycling more important than ever

Jason Pelz

As Americans celebrate Earth Day with tree plantings, community cleanups and other eco-friendly activities, support for recycling has never been stronger, yet there remains a lot of room for improvement.

The Recycling Partnership estimates that if every U.S. family recycled properly, we would double the current recycling rate and capture 22 million more tons of recyclables each year. This would save 50 million metric tons of greenhouse gas annually, the equivalent of removing 10.5 million cars off the road every year.

How do we try to achieve this? An easy first step is ensuring that we are recycling all that we can. Europeans have been recycling their cartons for decades but only recently have Americans followed their lead. Today, cartons are considered a mainstream recyclable material, much like newspaper, plastic bottles and aluminum cans.

New research by the Carton Council of North America offers proof. A survey of 6,900 U.S. adults showed that 61 percent of people said they always recycle their cartons, up 11 percent from a similar survey done two years ago. Overall, enthusiasm for recycling runs high. Ninety-four percent agreed recycling is important.

As recycling has evolved, so too have recycling logos and information on packaging, which can boost the chances of a product being recycled. The Carton Council’s survey found that people look to a product’s packaging first to figure out if an item is recyclable.

But just because a package doesn’t have a recycling symbol, people shouldn’t assume that it can’t be recycled. What can and can’t be recycled varies by community and is primarily dependent on the recycling facilities where the materials go. To find out for sure, consumers should check with their local community and its website.

Another way to improve recycling is by attacking persisting myths. For example, unless your local program says otherwise, people shouldn’t bag recyclables before putting them in their recycling bin. Plastic bags get jammed in recycling equipment. Instead, put recyclables loosely in bins or carts.

There’s no need to crush containers or remove caps, either. Empty the contents and put them in the bin and let the recycling professionals handle the rest.

It’s important to know that there’s no such thing as a “waxy” carton. What some people think is wax is a plastic coating. Cartons are lightweight by design. Most average 93 percent product and just 7 percent packaging, which helps preserve the Earth’s resources.

Once recycled cartons are collected and hauled to a sorting center, they are separated from other materials, baled and shipped to facilities where they get a second life. At paper mills, cartons are made into new products, such as printing and writing paper, tissues and paper towels.

Alternatively, cartons are converted into green construction materials for homes and buildings. The ReWall Company incorporates the entire carton, caps and all, to make building materials using no water, formaldehyde glues or hazardous chemicals. The finished product is strong, durable and resistant to mold and moisture. As with many eco-friendly products, demand for these building materials is growing. ReWall recently expanded its operations, increasing its appetite for even more recycled cartons.

Americans should do everything they can to recycle the right materials and recycle more of them.

Jason Pelz is vice president of recycling projects for the Carton Council of North America and vice president, environment, for Tetra Pak Americas. He wrote this for Inside Sources.