We all know the excitement that arises when a long-awaited package arrives at our front door.
You split open the packaging tape with haste, revealing that much-needed product you’ve been waiting for. But once that new clothing item or household item is unwrapped, suddenly you’re left with a bulky and used cardboard box.
The original version of this post was published on the Public Goods Blog.
It’s not just the post office that fills our limited space with cardboard boxes. They pop up when we’re moving to a new house, storing away some unused items or even when ordering a pizza. Instead of simply throwing it in the trash, you may be wondering how to recycle cardboard boxes in the most sustainable way possible.
Believe it or not, recycling cardboard is not simple for everyone. The recycling process can actually be quite confusing. Sure, some people have designated recycling bins or areas to dispose of their cardboard, but others don’t share this luxury, let alone instructions from local authorities explaining how to recycle properly.
There are several statistics that highlight the importance of recycling cardboard. For starters, it takes approximately three tons of trees to make one ton of virgin cardboard. When one ton of cardboard is recycled, it effectively eliminates nine cubic yards of landfill space. Recycled cardboard also saves 24% of the energy needed to produce virgin cardboard.
There are some important facts to know about cardboard recycling and a variety of ways you can make the most of your cardboard waste.
Is Cardboard Recyclable?
Yes. Most forms of cardboard are recyclable. There are two primary types of cardboard: corrugated cardboard and paperboard. Corrugated cardboard is what is typically used for the boxes sent through the mail. These brown packing boxes contain an inner layer of cardboard between liner sheets to make them more durable.
According to the American Forest & Paper Association, Old Corrugated Cardboard/Containers (OCC) — which is a recycling industry term referring to used corrugated cardboard — had an incredibly high recovery rate of 96.4% in 2018, the highest recycling rate of paper products.
Paperboard, also known as chipboard, is commonly used to produce containers for food and consumer goods, such as shoe boxes or cereal boxes. Made of just a single layer or grayish paper material, this type of cardboard is more flimsy than corrugated cardboard, making it easier to tear or flatten.
It’s important to note that not all cardboard can be recycled. While they are recyclable in theory, used pizza boxes with oil stains or food remnants should not be thrown into the recycling bin. The same goes for boxes that have been soaked with chemicals from cleaning supplies or other household products.
Why? Because these substances can contaminate the cardboard and compromise the recycling process, making it harder to separate paper fibers from the oils. Unfortunately, these spoiled paper products belong in the trash (or compost, depending on your home/municipal capabilities).
How to Recycle Cardboard?
To follow the cardboard recycling process properly, it’s important to know how to prepare the boxes and where to dispose of them.
Break Down the Boxes
The first step in the cardboard recycling process is to break down the box. Use a box cutter, knife, scissors or house key to cut any tape holding the box together, allowing you to easily collapse it.
Check to make sure there are no packaging materials, like plastic, left in the box. Then flatten it completely. While you can remove the tape or packaging labels yourself, most recycling centers will remove it themselves — so no need to worry about that.
If the cardboard waste has come into contact with liquid or any other contaminants, cut that part out before you recycle it. This technique is also relevant with pizza boxes that don’t have too much grease or oil on them. All in all, saturated cardboard is difficult to recycle, so make it easier for these recycling facilities by only giving them the dry parts.
Put Them Outside on Recycling Day
It’s not enough to flatten the boxes, especially when they’re large or if you have a bunch of them. You can cut and fold them to ensure you can squeeze all of the boxes into the recycling container.
Some companies will allow you to place cardboard outside of the waste bin, but make sure it’s not going to rain. This type of weather can spoil your collection.
If you can’t fit all of the broken-down boxes into the recycling bin, store them somewhere safe and dry until your local recycling center or waste hauling company comes to scoop them up. You can always call them to see when they’ll be able to stop by and collect your old cardboard or bring them directly to a specified drop-off location.
How is Cardboard Recycled?
Once the cardboard makes its way to the recycling facility, it undergoes a process that eventually allows it to be recycled into new cardboard and other paper products. First, the cardboard must be separated from other paper products.
After the cardboard is separated, it is baled and sent to a mill, where it’s shredded into small pieces. Using water and chemicals, a pulping machine then softens and breaks down the cardboard into fibers. Any remaining ink and tape are filtered out of the pulp while the paper fibers bond together. Before it can be manufactured, the pulp is mixed with water one again, and then pressed and stirred to create the right consistency.
Once the mixing process is complete, these fibers are rolled and dried out, resulting in huge reels of brown paper that can then be utilized to create new products. Some of the brown paper can be layered and used to make thicker cardboard, while the remainder is downcycled into other paper products.
Alternative Cardboard Recycling Methods
Aside from recycling cardboard at home or bringing them to a local recycling facility, there are several other ways you can reuse cardboard boxes. After all, there’s no need to waste them when you have several alternative methods at your disposal.
For the home gardeners out there, cardboard boxes can be added to your compost pile. As long as the cardboard hasn’t come into direct contact with inedible substances like cleaning or bathing supplies, which would taint the rest of the compost pile.
Make sure that there’s no packing materials, like plastic or foil, included with the cardboard. You’ll also have to remove tape, stickers and other adhesives. Otherwise, both dry and wet cardboard can be composted.
First, you’ll want to break down the cardboard into small pieces to ensure it decomposes. Soaking it in water could help speed up the process. You can sprinkle shredded corrugated cardboard on top of your compost pile, which should also include other carbon-rich materials such as dead leaves or hay, as well as nitrogen-rich materials, including grass clippings, manure, or foods such as old vegetables or fruits.
Once you’ve added the cardboard into your compost, turn it to combine it with the green materials in the pile. This stirring method will ensure the compost pile remains moist and contains enough oxygen. It should be ready to use in six-to-eight months, depending on the process you employ and the condition of your compost.
Use Them or Give Them Away for Reuse
Preparing to move or need to put some clutter into storage? Instead of recycling cardboard boxes, you can simply reuse them. If kept in good condition, used cardboard boxes can be refurbished into storage or moving boxes.
Chances are, if you don’t need these boxes, you know someone who does! Ask friends, family or local community centers to see if they could benefit from these boxes.
If you’ve already broken down your cardboard, don’t fret! There’s an endless amount of inventive ways to reuse this material. Here are just a few of them:
- Used to make a drawer divider for better organization
- Converted into a cat playground
- Put on the floor for protection while you paint or remodel the house
- Reused for shipping purposes
- Stored in the garage for later use
All in all, there’s no need to waste used cardboard when you can simply recycle or reuse it instead. Whether your planning to leave those boxes curbside or rely on them for your next big move, think twice before you discard these highly recyclable materials.