Ask Eartha: Carton recycling confusion


Dear Eartha,
I’ve noticed there is a new container at the drop-off centers for food and beverage cartons. How can I tell what is a recyclable carton? Do these cartons actually get recycled, and what are they being used for?
— Riley, Dillon

We’re delighted residents now can recycle these food and
beverage cartons at the Breckenridge and Frisco recycling centers. Recyclable
cartons accepted at the drop-off centers typically hold plant-based milks,
pourable egg whites, individual servings of juice, shelf-stable milks, even
boxed water and boxed soup.

You might mistake some things as cartons, but remember that
coffee cups, ice cream containers, egg cartons, Styrofoam and plastics are not
accepted in these new bins.

Cartons accepted

Cartons are made primarily from paper, with a unique plastic
lining. Shelf-stable cartons also contain a layer of aluminum. These two special
linings help ensure a safe and preserved product. Because of the unique paper
fiber composition and the special linings, other look-alike materials (like ice
cream tubs) can’t be recycled alongside them.

You’ll see cartons with flat tops or slanted gable tops
(those that look like a building with a roof). The flat-top cartons usually
contain juice (small juice boxes), broth, soup, coconut water or wine. Gable-topped
versions are typically milk, creamers, egg substitutes and juice that you’d
find in the refrigerated section. Both types of cartons often have a plastic

Not accepted

Remember those items you might mistake as cartons? Coffee and
hot beverage cups, other to-go cups like those used for soda, take out
containers (whether Styrofoam or paper), ice cream tubs, Tupperware, egg
cartons and cylindrical oatmeal containers are not accepted in the new bins. Some
of these really do resemble cartons, but remember to look at the top. None of
these have a cap or gable-top like a carton always will. (You can, however,
drop your paper egg cartons in the cardboard and paperboard bin.)

When recycling cartons, remove caps and straws, which can
get tangled up in recycling machinery and can’t be processed in the same manner
as the cartons. Be sure to rinse before recycling, too.

New life for cartons

Once the bins at the drop-off centers are full, the cartons
are taken to the Summit County Resource Allocation Park, where they are bundled
together and sold. From there, a recycling company shreds the cartons, applies
heat and presses everything together (think panini press) into a big sheet.
Those sheets become ceiling tiles or wallboard, an alternative to drywall.
About 30 cartons turn into a 2-foot-square ceiling tile, and about 400 cartons
make up each wallboard.

We hope this helps clear up some of your confusion. And we
hope you’ll remember the most important tip to identify a food and beverage
carton: look for the little caps or gable-top roof. We’re excited Summit County
now offers carton recycling, and we hope to see you out there recycling yours.
If you have more questions on recycling, head to or
call 970-668-5703.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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