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The Carton Council of North America and the Cooperative Teamwork and Recycling Assistance organization teamed up to increase carton recycling in rural Texas communities.

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The process of implementing a new recycling program can often seem daunting. When that program is set to run in a rural area with limited resources and logistical obstacles, the task can seem almost unattainable. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be.

In 1994, the Cooperative Teamwork and Recycling Assistance (CTRA) organization was founded in Austin, Texas, to promote and support the implementation of productive and cost-effective recycling programs in Texas, specifically in underserved rural areas. In 2016, CTRA teamed up with the Carton Council of North America (CCNA), Denton, Texas, for a two-year project to add food and beverage carton recycling to four rural Texas communities: Brackettville/Fort Clark Springs, Hamilton County, Utopia and San Saba. Knowing that all four communities came with a diverse set of characteristics and challenges, CTRA and CCNA set out to determine the best practices for serving each. The entire project started with site visits to discuss equipment needs, logistics and education.

Made mainly from paper, cartons come in two types—shelf-stable (or aseptic) and refrigerated (or gable top)—and are used as packaging for a variety of products, such as milk, juice, soup, cream, beans and wine. Schools are known to have high concentrations of cartons, so for two of the locations, schools became the biggest volume source. However, a key finding was that while schools present a wonderful opportunity for collecting cartons, there are many other sources in a community that can also be tapped for carton recycling. The true foundation for establishing a program lies in ensuring that there are resources for collecting the cartons and bringing them to the recycling center on a regular basis.

Step 1: Find a champion

As with any successful initiative, securing a champion to lead the charge is critical. Brackettville/Fort Clark Springs and Utopia already had “green teams” in place in their schools, which created a sense of ownership and made implementation easier. The schools held meetings to discuss the best ways to get students involved and to determine how collecting, and ultimately transporting, the cartons to the respective recycling centers for processing would work. In one location, the charge was led by the grants and programs administrator for the district. In the other, a science teacher took the lead, reinforcing the fact that it doesn’t necessarily matter who the champion is—just having one is what’s important. Additionally, the locations identified that having buy-in and support from the students, custodial staff and administration created accountability. A key learning point was that while every program needs a champion, taking the time to ensure more than one person is held accountable for success is important.

For this reason primarily, Hamilton County and San Saba were unable to get long-term school recycling programs off the ground. For example, the districts had individual classrooms that collected cartons, but the programs were unable to generate widespread adoption. They are still working hard, and their goal is to eventually have the program implemented more broadly district-wide.

Beyond the classroom, the community champions also found success with encouraging and educating other high-volume locations, like restaurants, detention centers, preschools/daycares and nutrition centers, to collect and bring their cartons to the recycling center.

Step 2: Define the recycling process

Once the champions (or team) had been determined in each region, the next step was to implement the most efficient process for recycling the cartons. The school programs followed the advice of previous Carton Council school recycling programs, which included working closely with custodial staff and following the three main steps proven to be most effective for a carton recycling program: drink, empty and recycle. Once students finished their meals, they were directed to bring their trays to a station where they emptied any residual liquid out of the cartons into a designated container, placed their empty cartons into the designated recycling container and threw their trash into the garbage receptacle.

Since these rural communities accumulate truckloads of material before sending it to market, they took special caution to clean and dry the cartons. While some set up drying racks for the cartons to sit in once emptied, others deposited the cartons directly into bins that were lined with trash bags to catch any lingering liquid and then placed into mesh bags. The communities found mesh bags helpful because they provided an easy storage solution that allowed the cartons to simultaneously dry. Cartons brought directly to the recycling centers were also transported via mesh bags and processed using similar logistics to those at the school district.

Creative ideas to allow more drying time included attaching two-by-fours with hooks to an overhang directly outside the cafeteria’s back door for a convenient way to hang these mesh bags without attracting insects and other pests. Another location was fortunate enough to find a cage trailer that served the dual purpose of giving the cartons a space to dry and transporting the them to the recycling center when the bin was full.

Step 3: Educate

Once the communities chose their champions and ironed out logistics, there came an important, yet often overlooked, step: education. While some of the schools had recycling programs already in place, carton recycling was new and still required education for many participants. Ensuring students properly emptied the cartons was the biggest battle, as some were leaving substantial amounts of milk in the cartons, ruining not just one, but potentially an entire bag of them.

Schools set up posters, educational displays and graphics throughout the schools and cafeterias to ensure there were plenty of reminders on how to recycle correctly. To kick off the program, one school district had an assembly on America Recycles Day (ARD) Nov. 15 that included educational videos and presentations by CTRA and the “green team,” as well as an interactive game with the district mascot. Both school districts had classes with videos designed to educate students on the recycling program, one of which had instructions in both English and Spanish.

To help educate the broader community that cartons were included in their drop-off program, advertisements were placed in local papers. The teams also used community newsletters, websites and social media. Communities also found success in setting up educational booths and deploying flyers at various events and festivals, which gave volunteers an opportunity to educate citizens about common carton recycling misconceptions in a face-to-face setting.

Carton recycling success

A helpful part of starting programs in small towns is that word travels fast, and an increased awareness of the carton recycling programs became noticeable early on. Partnerships with environmental groups like local Keep America Beautiful chapters and various civic groups were instrumental in helping spread the word. Through this initial due diligence, all four communities were able to successfully bring food and beverage carton recycling to their municipalities.

The total population of all four communities is just under 20,000. Two of the communities launched in fall 2016 and were able to recycle an estimated 114,205 cartons in the first year. The other two programs launched in February 2017, and through June, 148,535 cartons had been recycled. Combined, these four communities have recycled approximately 260,000 cartons. While these numbers may not seem impressive to someone from a big city, the output from these rural municipalities was significant.

Through these programs’ successes, there are now best practices to encourage and assist other rural communities in implementing carton recycling programs. Along with the obvious environmental benefits, implementing rural recycling programs at the school level engages students in positive social change that they also take home to share, thus boosting participation in community recycling. For rural communities, this project is just a start, but with an estimated 6 billion milk and beverage cartons consumed in U.S. schools every year, the opportunities are endless.

Rachel Hering is the executive director of Cooperative Teamwork and Recycling Assistance in Austin, Texas, and Michele Wagner is a member of the field team for the Carton Council of North America.