Where Do the Milk Cartons Go?

Mar 1, 2021

Recycling is not as straightforward as it ought to be. Here in New Brunswick we have 12 separate waste commissions, many of which use different methods for sorting and pickup of the trash we throw out. This becomes really tricky while trying to deliver a consistent educational message in schools across the province, and one item is always a point of curiosity in schools that we visit: milk cartons.


Uncovering an Issue

In 2019 I worked for The Gaia Project as a Director of Education, and one of my responsibilities was to provide professional learning for teachers. These professional learning sessions always looked different depending on the unique challenges, needs, and assets of each school community. During the fall of that year, I was contacted by an elementary school teacher at Florenceville Elementary School (FES) to help her students conduct a waste audit.

The Gaia Project had worked with FES for nearly 10 years, conducting waste audits, providing energy education and many other environment-based programs, (the school still uses the title ‘Gaia Club’ for their youth environmental team!). I was excited for my first school visit to see how I could help an inspiring teacher named Teena Bishop.

I sat down with Teena to talk about her students needs and questions regarding waste. She shared her observations of pizza crusts and apple cores in the regular trash, even though the school already had a successful composting system. But Teena was most concerned about the storage closet full of milk cartons. In her specific region, milk cartons could not be accepted for recycling, and schools tend to generate A LOT of milk cartons.


Reflecting on my Responsibility to Support Teena

I drove home to Fredericton that afternoon and thought about what Gaia could do to help. I imagined our staff driving a truck down to Florenceville each month to pick up bags and bags of cartons… This didn’t seem like a great option. Maybe we could encourage the students to write letters to policy makers? At least they could learn about the process of making change even if nothing happened from it… but wouldn’t it be cool if something did happen!

The next month I returned to FES and worked with Teena and a few more interested teachers. I showed them how to conduct a simple waste audit with their students, and left some of the equipment required to conduct the activity. While driving home, I reflected upon my meetings and began to look forward to hearing about their experiences, learnings and findings.


A New Funder for Waste Audits

The Gaia Project has been delivering school waste audits for over 5 years, and have even received national news coverage through the CBC in 2018 for our hands-on, down and dirty programming (check out the full video below)!

We have been fortunate to work with consistent supporters, including The McCain Foundation and the Environmental Trust Fund. The impact that these funders have afforded our organization has been huge. 

In 2020 we approached a new potential funder, the Carton Council of Canada. After submitting a proposal to conduct 6 additional waste audits we came to an agreement. We were truly fortunate that our new partner was receptive to our revised online delivery of waste audit program which was adapted in response to COVID-19 restrictions. A summer busy with the filming of ‘how to’ videos, building new kits, and developing new teacher guides has resulted in the greatest version of the program we’d ever offered, ‘The Trash Tracker’.

The Carton Council of Canada (CCC), was extremely helpful in the revision of resources; they had a real stake in the educational investment. The CCC wanted to see the real-world data collection by students. How many cartons were being generated in schools? How many were making it to the recycling bins and how many weren’t?


Sometimes it Takes a Phone Call

During the summer of 2020 I was in conversation with Managing Director, Isabelle Faucher, of the CCC. We were talking about carton recycling and suddenly my conversation with Teena Bishop raced back into my mind. I described Teena’s story and Isabelle became very interested in the localized challenge of milk carton recycling. Our discussion sparked a number of questions from Isabelle, who became committed to tackling the issue.

I then connected Isabelle with Barb Sharp, Waste Diversion Manager from the Western Valley Regional Service Commission. I had met Barb years earlier and absolutely admired her passion for providing community support. Now it was time for Isabelle and Barb to find a solution to the challenges of regional milk carton recycling. More importantly to The Gaia Project, Isabelle and Barb were working on answering a thoughtful question posed by a group of grade two students at Florenceville Elementary School: How do we get these milk cartons out of our storage closet and into a recycling facility?


Schools Making Change

As of January 1, 2021, milk cartons are recycled in the Western Valley Region. This news brought me so much joy and I couldn’t wait to share the news with Teena and her students! This experience has reinvigorated our team to keep supporting teachers, students and the entire community to inspire changes that will make our province a more sustainable place to live in.

Students in the Trash Tracker program
Students discussing their findings from the Trash Tracker program

With help from amazing community champions like Isabelle and Barb, we were able to make changes and empower the young decision makers of the future. You can make change in your community too, and we want to help you.

To learn how you can help create a positive impact in your community, visit us at www.thegaiaproject.ca and clickTEACHERS“, or reach out to us at contact@thegaiaproject.ca for more information.



  1. Students Learn to Track Their Trash. Perf. The Gaia Project. CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 2018. Web. 23 Feb. 2021.


Author: Geoff MacDonald, Interim Executive Director, The Gaia Project

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