Can those ubiquitous paper and foil juice boxes be recycled?

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Can those ubiquitous paper and foil juice boxes be recycled?

—C.W. Gluck, Queens, NY

Juice box packaging, which is called “aseptic,” was originally invented to safely ship foods without the need for refrigeration, and to recipients who lacked refrigeration. In fact, the invention has helped feed many needy people in the developing world. In America, the boxes are mostly a convenience, and their environmental impact is a mixed bag.

On the upside, the light, durable aseptic boxes have a higher product-to-packaging ratio than glass or aluminum cans, according to the Aseptic Packaging Council (APC), and the square shape allows for more efficient transport. Aseptic containers have no sharp edges and can be readily collapsed after use. Also, the opaque container protects the contents from the potentially harmful effects of light, which has been particularly valuable for sensitive soy products.

On the down side, most aseptic packages are made up of a mix of material: 70 percent paper, 24 percent polyethylene and six percent aluminum. As a result, the boxes are “relatively hard to recycle,” says John Davis, president of California Resource Recovery Association. Davis says only those few recycling facilities that process polyethylene-coated paper—as found in milk cartons and frozen food paperboard—can handle aseptic containers. While the APC claims that more than 12 million U.S. households have the ability to recycle the material (there are 276 drop sites in 26 states), actual recycling rates are quite low. Since this type of packaging is such a small part of the waste stream (between .03 and .1 percent of the total), most recycling programs simply ignore it, says Davis. The recycleability of the technology has been so contentious that aseptic packages were even banned in Maine for a few years, although seven Maine communities now recycle them.

CONTACT: Aseptic Packaging Council, (800) 277-8088,; California Resource Recovery Association,