Recycling is the process of collecting and converting previously used materials or trash into new product. Many different materials ranging from paper, plastic, metal, glass, and textile, are recyclable. As discussed below, the actual rate of recycling and usage of recycled materials can vary depending on the type of material and use cases. For example, recycled aluminum and paper-based materials are highly utilized in packaging, but plastics degrade in quality and don't get recycled. Despite its complexities, recycling helps reduce pollution and waste by discouraging the production of raw materials that can be energy-intensive and harmful to the environment.

Packaging Design

When designing sustainable packaging, it's important to clearly note if packaging can be recycled or composted.


Overall paper and paperboard products are recycled at a rate of over 68% and corrugated boxes are recycled at a rate of 96%. Items like cardboard, newspapers, paper bags, and food boxes can be easily recycled. However, items with lamination, excessive taping and gluing, food scraps, or wax coatings cannot be recycled. There are compostable options lined with bioplastics, but the cost is significantly higher and can only be composted, not recycled. Despite the draw backs and increased costs, paper products are a great sustainable option. The data below is provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on paper used for containers and packaging.

TypeRecycled RateUse Cases
Utility Paper / Newspapers64.8%Newspaper, Butcher Paper
Nondurable Paper Goods43.1%Books, Magazines, Office Paper, Postcards
Corrugated Boxes96.5%Ecommerce Mailers
Other Paper Packaging20.8%Bags, Folding Cartons, Sacks


The abundant usage of petroleum-based plastics is a key concern for sustainability due to waste and lack of recyclability. The unfortunate reality is that plastics have a low recycling rate of 8.4%. Thus, the vast majority of plastics are disposed of in a non-environmentally friendly way, polluting oceans and landfills alike.

Recycling Rates

Recyclable plastic types are labeled with a recycling code from 1 to 7 to help identify the plastic type and facilitate easier recycling. Just because an item has a recycling code, doesn't mean it actually gets recycled. The data below is provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on plastic used for containers and packaging.

CodeRecycled RateLocationUse Cases
#1 - PET / PETE25.4%CurbsideBottles for Water, Soda
#2 - HDPE14.8%CurbsideMilk Jugs, Shampoo Bottles, PakTech
#3 - V / PVC<0.1%-Shrink Sleeves, Saran Wrap
#4 - LDPE / LLDPE 9.9%Drop-OffGrocery Bags, Flexible Packaging
#5 - PP 2.7%CurbsideContainers for Yogurt / Sour Cream
#6 - PS 3.6%Drop-OffStyrofoam
#7 - Other<0.1%-Laminates, BPA Plastics, CDs

Soft plastics won't be recycled easily; it clogs machinery. What are soft plastics? If a plastic item can scrunch up, it's a soft plastic.

Sometimes compostable or bio-based plastics will be labeled as a #7 plastic. Despite this, bio-based plastics are NOT recyclable.

Recycling Obstacles

There are several reasons why recycling plastic is difficult and costly:

  1. Plastic is often contaminated with other materials, such as food residue and labels.
  2. Plastic isn't just one material; there are various types with its own properties and recycling requirements. It's challenging for consumers to know what to recycle or not recycle. It's also challenging for waste management companies to sort and process different plastics.
  3. The cost of recycling plastic is often higher than the cost of producing new plastic.
  4. There isn't infrastructure in place for collecting plastics. For example, only certain hard plastics can be recycled curbside and soft plastics must be dropped off at designated locations.
  5. Certain types of plastic significantly degrade in quality after being recycled.

Recycling plastics is a complex and challenging process. Despite the drawbacks, using plastic materials for packaging is often a great option. At Carton, we continue to work with leading manufacturers to provide compostable or paper based packaging and print solutions to reduce our reliance on plastics.


Metal recycling is the process of recovering scrap or waste metal and reprocessing it into new products. Common recycled metals include aluminum, copper, steel, brass, and iron. The data below is provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on metal used for containers and packaging. You'll notice that recycling rates are much higher than plastics and but lower than paper based packaging products.

TypeRecycled RateUse Cases
Steel73.8%Tin Cans
Aluminum50.4%Beer / Soft Drink Cans
-Foil / Closures

Aluminum and steel cans are curbside recyclable. Other metals used for packaging must be dropped off at a scrapyard. To encourage recycling, many states like California and New York provide a small redemption value.


Glass is a recyclable material that can be infinitely recycled without losing quality or purity, making it an important component of circular and sustainable packaging. The data below is provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on glass used for containers and packaging.

TypeRecycled RateUse Cases
Glass39.6%Beer & Soft Drink
39.8%Wine & Liquor

One major drawback is that glass is fragile. It weighs more and needs extra packaging during shipping, which increases the economic and environmental costs of glass packaging.

Updated on March 8, 2023

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