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Liquid cartons


“Liquid carton”in Chinese is really misleading

A question for you: Can liquid cartons be recycled?

The answer is NO until October 2019.
Even if liquid cartons can be recycled now, it doesn’t mean that most of the recycling bins will accept paper cartons.

It seems quit confuse at this moment.
The fact is that liquid carton could be separated into aluminum foil carton and mike carton. The former makes up of paper, plastic and aluminum, while the later makes up of paper and plastic.

Another question:
how many layers of paper/ plastic/ aluminium
are there in a liquid carton?

The answer is between three and seven layers, depending on the specifications of different manufacturers.


Liquid cartons are……not just made of paper,

don’t be misled by their appearance. When you unpeel the pack, you will find layers of paper, PE plastic and aluminium foil. The first layer of paper is used for keeping the pack’s rigidity and to facilitate the printing of information on it; the PE plastic makes the pack water-resistant and glues the layers together; and the aluminium foil blocks light and oxygen from affecting the drink, and it also acts as a hot glue. These three kinds of materials stack up to become the liquid carton—feels like paper, but it is actually a composite material. Take the example of the lemon tea available in Hong Kong, the ratios of paper, plastic and aluminium used in a pack are 75%, 20% and 5% respectively.


How hard is it to recycle composite materials?

As 75% of the pack is paper, how hard is it in recycling? The problem is due to the composite material where paper, plastic and aluminium are firmly glued together. It needs complex and expensive technologies to get them separated. Therefore, the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) had regarded liquid cartons as non-recyclables, which is trash, even if they are put into the paper recycling bins.

Hygiene is another issue that has raised the difficulties for recycling. The pack has got a very small opening, therefore we need to open and wash it before depositing it into the respective collection bins. A local 5-star hotel has tried to support liquid carton recycling, however, the pile of collected cartons got stinky and bugs in just a few hot and humid days.

Should we then give up recycling? We shouldn’t. Although liquid cartons accounted for 17% of beverages sold in Hong Kong (2017 Data) only, this type of waste has an alarming disposal rate. Data from EPD in 2018 shows 67 tonnes of liquid cartons were disposed of at landfills every day, that’s 24,455 tonnes a year. A local green group Green Power did a calculation for this matter, and it estimated that the volume is equivalent to 2.2 billion 250ml-sized liquid cartons that can fill up 3,698 Hong Kong Stadiums.

Without the recycling facility, the 2.2 billion liquid cartons disposed by us in 2018 had ended up in landfills.


Can we prevent liquid cartons becoming trash?

Surely we can. But we need to widen our perspective to learn the results made by high-achievers around the world.

Germany has achieved the best to reach a recycling rate of 81% for liquid cartons; on average, EU countries have reached 48%; Canada has reached 60%; and Japan has led the Asian countries by achieving 44%.

What experience we can learn from them? They all enacted legislation regarding producer responsibilities or recycling—they did not treat liquid cartons as trash. In Japan, milk cartons are designated recyclables. Not only producers have to bear responsibilities, supermarkets also have to provide accessible recycling facilities too. Kindergartens are encouraged to join the recycling programme by teaching little kids to tear open the cartons with their little hands, separating the paper and plastic; so the material will be upcycled to make toilet rolls for their use. Check the following video to learn the environmental actions done by these little hands.

Even Japan has recycled 44% of the liquid cartons, it has not been able to achieve a higher rate. Most of the countries around the world have not paid much attention to the problem.


The first liquid carton recycling plant in Hong Kong

Do you still remember we said earlier that liquid cartons can be recycled since October 2019? It is due to the establishment of the first recycled paper pulp plant named Mil Mill. They recycle around 10 tonnes of liquid cartons a day to produce various paper products.

Until the government makes producer responsibility mandatory, Mil Mill still needs to struggle for survival. Due to the lack of recycling networks and supports, the plant collects less than 2 tonnes of liquid cartons (in early 2020), which is much less than the designed capacity. Also, it was designed to recycle paper material only, and there is no outlet for waste plastic and aluminum.

However, the good news is that the three big local beverage manufacturers: Vita, Swire Coca-cola and Watsons Water have pledged in December 2018 to recycle at least 70% of the single-use beverage packaging including liquid cartons by 2025. On the other hand, Green Power has launched a 5-cent refund programme that aims to recover 300 tonnes of liquid cartons a year.


If kindergarten children from Japan can do it
We can do it too!

It is nice to see Hong Kong’s liquid cartons find a way out, let’s learn to practise clean recycling ( let’s make it easier, we can start from rinsing them by not separating the plastic and paper).


Remove the straw

Cut and rinse the liquid carton

Compress it

Refer to the liquid carton recycling map, put them into the right recycling bins.





Manufacturers claim that paper-packaging materials that originate from renewable timber, could be recycled after use, so it is a more environmental-friendly choice. What do you think about it?