Is the recycling of beverage cartons technically feasible?

In the transition towards a more circular economy for packaging materials, beverage cartons form a unique challenge. Although legally regarded as ‘paper and cardboard’, they are not accepted in this same recycling stream. Meanwhile, the Dutch government is trying to reduce the amount of packaging materials that are being incinerated and encourages more waste to be recycled. Is the recycling of beverage cartons technically feasible in the Netherlands?

In the circular economy, beverage cartons form a good feedstock for products such as toilet paper, poster tubes, roll cores and corrugated cardboard. The large-scale ‘Beverage Cartons Pilot’ studied the feasibility of separate collection and recycling, with Wageningen Food & Biobased calculating the efficiency of the process.

Technically feasible

The Wageningen analysis led to a surprising conclusion according to scientist Ulphard Thoden van Velzen: separate collection and recycling is technically feasible. “We say surprising because many parties estimated beforehand that it would be too complex. Beverage cartons have a liquid-proof layer of polyethylene, for instance, which would make them unsuitable for the paper mill. Moreover, the disposed packages are often highly polluted by microbes due to the large residues of custard and yoghurt.”

From collection to recycling

In the pilot project, scientists from Wageningen Food & Biobased Research and colleagues from the RWTH Institut für Aufbereiting und Recycling in Aachen, Germany, measured and calculated whether the collection and recycling of beverage cartons could be profitable in 37 municipalities. “We studied the yields per link in the chain, from collection and mechanical recovery to sorting and recycling,” says Thoden van Velzen. “By yield we mean the amounts of materials that can be reused, such as pulp, aluminium, polyethylene and polypropylene.”

15 to 60% yield

According to Thoden van Velzen the analysis showed that yields range between 15 and 60%: “The collection response of a municipality is determined by many factors. The highest yields can be achieved in places with many low-rise buildings where beverage cartons are collected together with plastic packaging materials. Separate collection is more complex for high-rise buildings.”

Collection in most municipalities

The pilot project results were reason enough for the then Dutch Secretary of State to encourage councils to collect beverage cartons separately in 2014, and most achieved this by 2015. Cardboard beverage packaging is collected together with plastic and metals in many municipalities, saving on collection costs and giving beverage cartons a second life via recycling.