Profiles in Garbage: Aseptic Boxes & Cartons

Aseptic boxes have proved a source reduction marvel since their 1981 introduction.

Aseptic boxes, also known as drink boxes, were introduced into the United States in 1981 to house liquids, primarily beverages such as milk, fruit juices and wine.

Aseptic processing involves high-temperature treatment for a short time. Liquid products are heated quickly to the temperatures at which sterilization occurs, then cooled and placed into a sterile container.

By weight, aseptic boxes (also known as shelf-stable cartons) are 74 percent paper (used for stiffness and strength), 22 percent polyethylene (used in four different layers to seal the package tightly) and 4 percent aluminum foil (used as a barrier against air and light). The boxes can protect a beverage for six months or more without refrigeration.

Gable top cartons, used for milk, juices and other products that must be refrigerated, are the most common form of polycoated paper packaging.

By weight, these cartons are 80 percent paper and 20 percent polyethylene. Paper cartons for milk and juices have lost market share to plastic containers. Other polycoated paper packaging such as frozen food boxes, round ice cream cartons and microwaveable dinner cartons are not included in this profile.


Aseptic Boxes & Cartons Facts*


  •  540,000 tons, or 0.2% of MSW by weight.
  •  3.49 pounds (lbs.) per person per year.


  •  30,000 tons or 6.5% per 2009 EPA data.
  •  Last five years have seen a major push to expand carton recycling through the United States.
  •  Now being collected curbside in 40 states.


  •  The mix of materials in both packages creates composting problems. Neither aluminum foil nor polyethylene will compost.
  •  Composting operations will attempt to remove both by mechanical means.

Burned or Landfilled:

  •  430,000 tons or 0.3% of discarded MSW in 2009.
  •  High Btu values (19,000 Btus per pound for polyethylene and more than 7,000 Btus per pound for paper as compared to 4,500 to 5,000 Btus per pound for MSW).
  •  Aluminum foil is non-combustible and will end up as residue in the ash.

Landfill Volume:

  •  1.1 million cubic yards or 0.3% of landfilled MSW for gable top cartons in 1997.
  •  Aseptic boxes landfill volume was not estimated by EPA but would be negligible.


  •  Landfilled gable top cartons weigh 820 pounds per cubic yard (lbs/cu.yd.).
  •  Aseptic boxes and gable top cartons collected at the curbside have a density of 80 to 100 lbs/cu/yd.

Source Reduction:

  •  Aseptic boxes are a source reduction marvel. They are lightweight, save on transportation and energy costs and can save their product from spoiling for more than six months without refrigeration.
  •  Gable top cartons replaced refillable milk bottles in the 1950s, offering a lightweight product for consumers.


  •  These boxes have long fibers that are highly prized by the paper industry.
  •  Seven North American mills and nine international mills accept cartons.
  •  End products include tissue paper, office paper and wallboard.

End Market Specifications:

  •  End market mills establish their specifications for these raw materials.



Carton Council,

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2010,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste,

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 1998,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste,

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recyling Coalition, Washington,

*Data is from 2010 EPA estimates, except where noted.


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