Beyond the Pour: The Sustainability Struggle of Hard-to-Recycle Milk Cartons and the alternatives out there

Milk cartons and Tetra Pak-style liquid containers are now a staple in households across the UK and the EU. This is particularly true today given the rise of alternative milks across supermarket aisles and in coffee shops everywhere. But what happens once you have had your cereal, smoothie or latte?

My guess is you pop it into the recycling and think nothing more of it. After all, it’s a carton right? It’s just paper! Unfortunately, like many things regarded as ‘sustainable’, the real-story is not so straight-forward.

Not only are these containers made of more than paper card (this makes sense given paper isn’t waterproof) but in many cases they are not readily recyclable. The crux of the problem lies in their multi-layered composition. These cartons are usually made of a combination of cardboard, plastic, and aluminium, which makes separating and recycling their components a challenging task. In fact, it has been argued by some experts that a plastic bottle in place of these cartons would actually be overall better because plastic bottles are widely recycled and have a clearer path into an alternate use via recycling (all plastic is down-cycled to a lower quality plastic). At The Source we’re not the biggest fans of that outcome either but it is definitely food for thought next time you pour from a carton.

Fortunately, there is progress on the recycling front and there is much needed growth of carton recycling programs. Several local authorities now offer collection points specifically for beverage cartons, making it easier for consumers to recycle them. Additionally, some companies have taken steps to make their cartons more sustainable by reducing the use of non-recyclable materials and increasing the use of recycled content. Finally, recycling facilities in both the UK and the EU have been investing in improved technology such as sorting machines and specialist separating equipment to better handle these complex cartons.

So, what should the average consumer do?  A good starting point is being aware, which you are doing by reading this blog. It’s a good idea to inform yourself if your local area has the capacity to collect and recycle these containers (and more generally other materials). Often you will find this information via your local authorities waste management website or Check the Recycle Now website to see whether they’re picked up kerbside. At least if you find out that they aren’t recycled in your area you wont be contaminating your recycling. You may also consider alternatives if they are available to you including products in glass bottles such as those offered by several milk-round style companies or products like our Oat M*lk powder.

By supporting these efforts and making conscious choices in our daily lives, we can contribute to a more sustainable future for our beloved milk cartons. So, next time you pour a glass of milk, remember that your actions can play a part in reducing the environmental impact of these convenient containers.

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