Can Cardboard Be Recycled?

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There are two types of cardboard—corrugated and paperboard—and they can both be recycled. Corrugated cardboard is made of multiple layers to create a durable and strong packing material. Paperboard is relatively thin, only slightly thicker than regular paper, and is used for things like cereal boxes and shoe boxes.

After you toss your cardboard into the recycling bin, it goes through a process of re-pulping where its fibers are separated and bleached. The fibers are then cleaned, pressed, and rolled into paper. The resulting material can be made into new products or even converted back into boxes for packaging.

The global paper recycling market is worth billions of dollars and continues to grow, partially because recycled paper offers a variety of cost-benefits as well as a slew of environmental benefits. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the recycling rate for cardboard boxes in the United States was 88.8% in 2020, a slight decline from the 92.1% peak seen in 2019. The recovery rate for paper consumed in the U.S. has nearly doubled since 1990 as more Americans recognize the environmental benefits of recycling.

How to Recycle Cardboard

Cardboard is a widely accepted material in recycling take-back, and curbside pickup programs in the United States and around the world. And depending on its quality, cardboard can be recycled five to seven times before its fibers experience too much wear for further processing.

Here we explore your options for recycling cardboard and the steps needed to convert the material into new paper products.

Preparing Cardboard

Before putting your cardboard in the recycling bin, be sure it’s clean and dry. Greasy or wet cardboard can gum up the recycling machinery and is considered contaminated. Some programs still accept greasy cardboard for recycling, so check with your city to find out.

You should remove any plastic packaging from your cardboard boxes before recycling them. Any glitter or batteries should be torn off or otherwise removed from cardboard or paperboard products (think greeting cards). Some recycling programs also require that you break down each cardboard box, flattening it to leave space for more materials to fit in your bin or on the recycling truck.

If you’re participating in a curbside pickup cardboard recycling program, try not to leave uncovered cardboard out for collection when it’s raining. Wet cardboard isn’t as easily recyclable as dry cardboard. Its fibers are weakened when exposed to moisture and those weak fibers can damage machinery. Wet cardboard also weighs more than dry cardboard, and since sorting machines often sort recyclables by weight, wet cardboard disrupts the process and can lead to contamination and entire batches being sent to the landfill. If rain is an issue, call your cardboard recycler to ask about your options. You may be able to drop it off at their facility or they may be able to pick it up when the weather clears up.

Can You Recycle Pizza Boxes?

It depends. If a pizza box doesn't' have excessive grease or food stains, it can be recycled like a regular corrugated cardboard box. According to a 2020 study by WestRock, a corrugated paper company, "the strength loss of the resulting product made with recovered fiber that incorporates post-consumer pizza boxes should be minimal at typical levels of grease expected to be received in a recycling facility." So, technically, there is no reason why they should be left out of the recycling process. However, whether or not they are accepted will depend on your municipality and its capabilities.

If pizza boxes are not accepted for recycling in your area, you can compost the box by tearing it into small pieces and adding it with your browns, preferably covered by other material to avoid attracting insects.

If in doubt, you can always recycle the clean top part of the box and compost or throw out the bottom.

Curbside Pickup

The federal government doesn’t mandate recycling, but some states do require it. A handful of states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have passed laws that require the recycling of all paper products.

Most curbside recycling programs accept cardboard boxes for pickup. Curbside pickup programs typically offer recycling bins with weekly pickup service in exchange for a monthly fee. Reach out to your local recycler to determine what services are available in your area. According to the Recycling Partnership, just over half of Americans have access to curbside recycling as of 2020 and more programs are continuously rolling out nationwide.

Drop Off Recycling

If recycling curbside pickup isn’t available to you or if you have pieces of recyclable cardboard that are simply too large to fit into your bin, you can likely take them to a nearby recycling center at little to no cost.

Take Back Programs

Organizations like Terracycle offer take-back programs for recyclables, including some cardboard items that are considered to be contaminated with plastic coatings.

If you purchase a product with a type of cardboard packaging that isn’t accepted by your local recycler, ask the company if they have take-back programs to recycle it. It’s possible that they can accept old packaging for reuse in future shipments.

Ways to Reuse Cardboard 

Environmentally speaking, it’s always better to reduce and reuse before recycling. Because cardboard is a relatively durable material, especially corrugated cardboard, there are many ways you can reuse and repurpose it.

Gift Wrapping

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Wrap gifts with used cardboard boxes to give them new life. You can opt to cover up the cardboard with eye-catching wrapping paper and other decorations or keep it simple. One easy idea is to use a decorative paper adhesive tape to both seal and decorate the box. Or a simple ribbon might suffice.

Storage

Storing things in cardboard boxes is a no-brainer. Boxes are commonly used to transport items during travel or in big moves, but they can also be static storage boxes. Use old cardboard boxes to store things like small electronics, old photos, or even snacks. Boxes can be taken apart and flattened for storage and put back together when needed.

Crafting

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Cardboard is a valuable crafting supply. Save old cereal boxes and cardboard packaging to repurpose them using art and DIY skills. There are a number of upcycled cardboard tutorials and ideas available online. Make everything from home decor to kids toys. Here’s some inspiration:

Shipping

Corrugated cardboard boxes are strong and fairly inexpensive, making them great for shipping. When you order something online, it almost always arrives packaged in a corrugated cardboard box.

Instead of tossing that box into the recycling bin (or otherwise disposing of it), save it for any future shipments you make. Not only is reusing the box an eco-friendly alternative, but it will also save you money the next time you head to the post office since you won’t need to purchase new packaging for your mail. 

Saving cardboard boxes for reuse will become especially handy during the holiday season if you send gifts through the mail. Just be sure to cover up or remove the old shipping label and destination address before sending it to avoid shipping mishaps.