How to Recycle Cardboard

How to Recycle Cardboard

Corrugated cardboard is the highest value grade of paper, as its durability means long paper fibers. This also helps explain why it has the highest recycling rate of paper products: 92.9 percent in 2015.

Cardboard Recycling Preparation

Since most cardboard is used for shipping, you’ll want to remove any shipping materials such as packing peanuts, plastic bags and bubble wrap. Check out our recycling guides for these materials to learn how to recycle them.

  1. Use a knife or scissors to cut any tape used to seal the top and/or bottom of the box, then collapse the box. You don’t need to remove the tape, but most recyclers prefer that boxes are flattened to save space.

  2. For boxes that contained huge items, you may need to fold or cut the flattened box in half for it to fit in your recycling cart. Some programs also allow you to set large boxes next to the cart, but don’t put them out if it’s raining. Wet cardboard doesn’t have a recycling market.

  3. For boxes that are food-soiled (such as pizza boxes), cut out any oil stains before recycling. Food-soiled paper doesn’t have a recycling market.

Why Recycle Cardboard

  • Over half of the cardboard collected is used to make new cardboard boxes, and additional cardboard can be downcycled into paperboard (used for cereal boxes) or chipboard (used for shoeboxes)

  • Making 1 ton of virgin cardboard requires 3 tons of trees

  • Recycling 1 ton of cardboard eliminates 9 cubic yards of landfill space

Frequent Cardboard Recycling Questions

Most curbside recycling programs accept cardboard boxes since they are a high-commodity material. Just remember to flatten the boxes and remove any plastic materials inside. 

No. These materials get filtered out during the recycling process, as does ink.
The term “cardboard” is used for most boxes, but shipping boxes are officially known as corrugated cardboard. The corrugated piece is the extra layer of fiber that zig-zags between the brown sheets, making it tougher to tear and sturdier for shipping. Paperboard is thinner and less durable, used for cereal boxes. These are two different grades of paper with different commodity values, even though you might call both cardboard. 
Even though the paper recycling process introduces water, when you get paper wet and it dries, it manipulates the fibers (as a result, it feels stiffer). Paper mills also don’t want to pay for wet paper because it’s heavier with the extra water weight.
While every recycling program is different, pizza boxes are a frequent source of contamination in all of them. The key question to ask is: Are there oil stains on the box? If the answer is yes, you either want to throw away the whole box or remove the stained parts.
 Several states have passed laws requiring paper products be recycled, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as Washington, D.C. 
The first step in recycling cardboard is to separate it from other paper, such as office paper and newspaper. The cardboard is then baled and sent to a mill, shredded into small pieces, and put in a pulping machine to introduce water/chemicals and break down the cardboard into fibers. Then, any ink and tape is removed and the paper fibers start bonding together. Finally, the fibers are rolled and dried, then sent off to make new products. Over half of corrugated cardboard is recycled into new cardboard; the remainder is downcycled into paperboard and other paper products. 
Paper mills will buy cardboard in bulk, as long as it’s separated from other paper. So, if you work at a place that uses a lot of cardboard, such as a retail store or restaurant, you should contact a local mill to arrange a partnership. If you’re a consumer looking to recycle five boxes, you’re unlikely to find someone that will pay you.

Additional Reading

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