can you recycle milk cartons

If you want to do your bit to help the environment, one of the first changes you can make is to develop a habit of recycling your household items and consumer goods wherever possible. One of the best places to start is with the products you consume a lot of – such as milk cartons.

So, the next question is – how can you recycle milk cartons? We’ll talk about how to recycle milk cartons and also other options for disposing of them responsibly.

So – can you recycle milk cartons?

It is possible to recycle milk cartons. This can be relatively easy to do, depending on the type of milk carton as well as where you live, or it may involve some effort – so it’s important to read up on the topic. 

Generally, though, milk cartons are recyclable, but they may not be accepted as part of your local curbside recycling.

store shelves with various milk cartons
You can recycle milk cartons – but some are easier than others

This type of packaging is generally made up of a mix of paper and plastic, as well as aluminum in some cases. This combination makes them more difficult to recycle, and for this reason, some municipalities accept them for recycling while others don’t.

The main types of milk cartons are:

  1. Gable top milk cartons – These are the cartons you’ll generally find in the fridge in the supermarket, which are shaped with a triangular, gable-like top. They’re made with around 80% paper and 20% plastic and are relatively easy to recycle.
  1. Aseptic milk cartons – Are used to package long life milks that don’t need to be refrigerated, as well as a variety of other products such as juices, wine, soup, and gravy. Along with paper and plastic, they also contain a small percentage of aluminum, making them more difficult to recycle.

In your quest for figuring out whether milk cartons are recyclable, your first step should be to contact your local sanitation department and check whether they accept milk cartons for recycling.

If your local sanitation department accepts milk cartons for recycling, be sure to check whether they accept all varieties, or gable top only. 

If not, there are other ways you can recycle milk cartons, such as through mail-in programs. We’ll discuss the various ways to recycle milk cartons later in this article, but first, let’s look at why it’s important to do so.

Why is it important to recycle milk cartons?

Since not all towns will take milk cartons for recycling, too much of this type of packaging ends up in landfill. Both aseptic and gable top milk cartons are made predominantly of paper, but this is coated in plastic as well as, sometimes, aluminum.

Although milk cartons break down in a relatively-short five years, the plastic film doesn’t go away. Instead, it will decay into tiny microplastics that pollute the soil, leach toxins into it, and often end up in our oceans and waterways, where they are devastating to marine life.

a full trash bin with a milk carton on top
Throwing empty milk cartons in the trash means they will most likely end up in a landfill
Source: Flickr / Dan Keck

Aside from the environmental impact of landfills and microplastics, this is also a massive waste of resources. Milk cartons are made up of valuable materials that can easily be used to manufacture new products.

How to dispose of old milk cartons responsibly

Unfortunately, milk cartons are not compostable because the paper is coated in plastic and sometimes aluminum. This means the only way to get rid of milk cartons without damaging the environment is to recycle, reuse, or upcycle them.

Recycle them

The biggest issue for recycling facilities is separating the layers of different materials. Once the paper, plastic, and aluminum is separated out, it can all be recycled into new products.

The paper is pulped down and used to manufacture facial tissues, paper towels, and printer paper, while the plastic and aluminum is typically used to make construction materials such as wallboard and tiles.

Sometimes, recycling centers don’t separate out the materials at all, but simply shred the whole cartons and press the shredded material into sheets to make construction board.

How to recycle milk cartons

Roughly half of municipalities in the USA currently accept milk cartons for recycling – so you should check with your local service if you can recycle this material curbside. If so, you’ll just need to fully empty the carton, rinse it thoroughly, and then put it out for recycling.

Some people think that you need to flatten or crush the container first, but this is not necessary. In fact, it actually makes the carton harder to recycle, so you’re best to leave it intact!

three milk cartons stacked on one another
Despite a common belief, crushing empty milk cartons makes them harder to recycle

Other preparation can vary depending on local requirements. Some municipalities ask that you push any straws inside and screw plastic caps back on, while others will only accept the carton on its own.

Be sure to contact your local authority before preparing your milk cartons for recycling to confirm their specific requirements. Some towns don’t take milk cartons curbside, but have specific pick-up days or drop-off locations.

If your local authority doesn’t accept milk cartons, you still have options! You can also look for a recycling center in your area and see if they take this material – check Earth 911 or Green Citizen’s search tools to find a facility near you.

It’s also a good idea to get in touch with your municipality’s sanitation department and request that they look into recycling milk cartons. If enough people lobby their local City Hall, they may change their policy!

How to use a mail-in recycling program

If you can’t recycle milk cartons through your local municipality and there are no recycling centers in your area, you can go through a mail-in program instead.

Mail-in programs across the country which accept milk cartons for recycling:

Follow these steps to recycle milk cartons using a mail-in program:

  1. Choose a mail-in program. Once you’ve decided which mail-in program you want to use, ask them for instructions on how you should prepare the cartons for recycling. For example, check if they’ll accept crushed cartons, whether caps should be screwed on or removed, and if you should include straws or similar.
  1. Prepare your cartons for recycling. Completely empty the milk carton, rinse thoroughly, and let it dry completely. Prep the cartons according to the mail-in program’s instructions.
  1. Crush the cartons (if possible). Flattening the cartons makes them cheaper and easier to transport. However, not all programs accept crushed cartons as this slows down the recycling process, so be sure to check with them first.
  1. Mail them in. Package the cartons in a recyclable container such as a cardboard box and send them to the program’s mailing address. Label the outside of the box “cartons”.

Reuse them

Reusing old milk cartons is another great way to keep them out of landfill and therefore protect the environment. These containers are specifically designed to hold liquids without leaking, and this makes them perfect for a range of purposes.

the bottom part of an old milk carton filled with soil and growing plants
One of the easiest ways to reuse old milk cartons is to turn them into a seed planter
Source: Flickr / Valerie Hinojosa

Here are some ways to reuse old milk cartons:

  • To store dry foods. Gable-top milk cartons are not only perfect for storing and pouring milk, but also dry foodstuffs like sugar, rice, or seeds. Make sure you thoroughly clean and dry the carton first, then it’s ready to use!
  • Other storage. You can also use old, clean milk cartons to store a variety of items, from small hardware items like screws and nails to art supplies.
  • Planters for herbs or seedlings. Simply snip the top off and cut them down to your desired size and poke a few holes in the bottom for drainage. Use them like this, or paint them for a decorative touch!
  • Gift packaging. If you’re planning on gifting something precious or fragile, keep it safe by wrapping it in an old milk carton, or use them to package cookies or nuts for the holidays. Decorate the carton with paint, eco-friendly glitter, and tie a ribbon around it for a stunning piece of gift wrapping!

Upcycle them

Milk cartons also make fantastic art supplies – you can upcycle them into a range of cool items, from lanterns to Christmas decorations.

Here are some creative projects to upcycle old cartons:

Final thoughts 

Although you can recycle milk cartons, this may not be easy, depending on where you live and the type of milk carton. Check with your local authority to see if you can recycle cartons curbside, or if they offer other options for recycling this type of material.

Otherwise, you can recycle milk cartons by using a mail-in program, or reuse or upcycle them to avoid polluting the environment.

If your local authority doesn’t accept milk cartons for recycling, why not call City Hall and ask them to change their policy? You can also use your consumer power to drive change through your wallet by only buying milk that comes in recyclable containers – look for brands that have joined the Carton Council.

If you’ve found this guide useful, check out our other posts on recycling household items, including light bulbs, cardboard boxes, and carpet.

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