Why Juice Boxes Sometimes Can't Be Recycled

Recycling is one of the easiest ways to help the planet, and in many cases, it's free. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling helps keep waste out of landfills, reduces unnecessary use of natural resources, and helps prevent pollution. It also conserves energy and helps create jobs in recycling facilities, among other places.

If you're new to recycling, you'll be happy to know that there are many items in your house right now that can be recycled, including paper, cardboard, plastic objects, batteries, and glass. Even large items like automobiles and computers can be recycled, according to Consolidated Resources Incorporated. Usually, all you have to do is place your items in a recycle bin or call a specific company to have someone come to your house and pick them up.

But there are some items that fall into one of the aforementioned categories that aren't accepted for recycling, like juice boxes. Although juice boxes are made of plastic, paper, and aluminum, per the Aseptic Packaging Council (via Pollution Prevention Infohouse) — all of which are considered recyclable materials separately — they sometimes can't be recycled because of how they must be recycled.

How are juice boxes recycled?

Filling a recycling bin is easy. Aside from remembering which items can and can't be recycled, there's not much to think about. The actual recycling process, on the other hand, requires a lot more thought and effort, especially when it comes to juice boxes. With these items, a specific technology called hydrapulping is required to properly recycle them, according to Aseptic Packaging Council via Pollution Prevention Infohouse, since they include six layers of raw materials.

Hydrapulping is used primarily for handling waste paper, as Science Direct explains. Here's how it works: Large amounts of paper are placed into a machine called a hydrapulper, a large tank with water in it. The hydrapulper is equipped with an agitator that breaks up the paper into small pieces until it becomes a thick, mushy substance called pulp, per PMC Engineering.

The hydrapulping process separates non-paper materials from paper so the paper can be recycled into tissue and similar items, according to Aseptic Packaging Council. Of the six layers that comprise a juice box, about 70% comes from paper, so the plastic and aluminum layers are removed during hydrapulping.

The problem is not all American cities have hydrapulping machines, reports Smithsonian magazine. (Although, as the Carton Council of North America pointed out to us in email correspondence, hydrapulping is not the only method needed in order to recycle cartons; they can be recycled at other places without such machines, like manufacturing facilities.) This means those juice boxes that you think are getting a second life may actually end up in a landfill. Visit your city's recycling service webpage or contact the city to determine if they recycle juice boxes.

What you can do if your city doesn't recycle juice boxes

If your city doesn't accept juice boxes (also referred to as recyclable cartons) as part of its recycling program, that doesn't mean you have to throw them away. You have other options! You can mail them to a Carton Council facility that does accept them after following a few easy steps.

Carton Council, an industry organization that aims to increase carton recycling in the United States, has facilities in Colorado, Nebraska, Virginia, and Michigan that accepts recyclable cartons. In addition to mailing your juice boxes, you can sign a petition to bring carton recycling to your city. Thanks to Carton Council's efforts, the number of carton recycling facilities increased from 37% to 62% over a seven-year period (via Earth911).

Another option is to reuse your juice boxes. Conserve Energy Future provides a few ideas. For example, you can use cartons as planters since they're water-resistant. You can also use them to organize small food items in your pantry or as a pouch for pencils, cell phones, and other items. Instructables provides step-by-step instructions for making the pouch.

To recap, juice boxes sometimes can't be recycled because the hydrapulping technology required to recycle them isn't available at every recycling facility. But you can still give those boxes a second life by mailing them to a recycling facility that offers hydrapulping or by using them to make other items.