Proper Cardboard Recycling Techniques

It's not as simple as you might think

bound cardboard boxes

The Spruce / Letícia Almeida

The average American uses seven trees per year in paper products, including cardboard. According to some recycling advocates, every ton of recycled cardboard saves 9 cubic yards of landfill space. And recycling cardboard only uses around 75 percent of the energy needed to make new cardboard. Besides car batteries, of all the materials that are recycled in the U.S., cardboard is recycled more than any other material. Corrugated boxes have a recycling rate of 96.5%.

Ultimately, it's common sense that recycling cardboard is more sustainable than cutting down trees to make virgin paper products. You have to make sure you're recycling correctly, so the system works as it should.

Types of Cardboard

There are two main types of cardboard, and both can be recycled. The first is corrugated cardboard, typically used to make brown packing boxes. It contains a wavy inner layer of cardboard between liner sheets, making it thick and durable.

The other type is paperboard (also known as chipboard). It is a single layer of grayish cardboard used to make items, such as cereal boxes, shoe boxes, and other packages. Paperboard is sturdier than a typical sheet of paper; you can tear it much more easily than corrugated cardboard.

How to Prepare Cardboard for Recycling 

Cardboard is made from wood fiber, so recycling saves landfill space and trees. You can recycle most cardboard products (boxes, tubes, etc.), but you must usually follow some conditions.

Some waste management companies require that cardboard boxes be flattened before collection. For some, it's OK to leave tape, labels, and other items on the cardboard, as they'll be removed at the recycling center. Others will not take stained pizza boxes or waxed milk cartons.

For old packing boxes, remove the bubble wrap and other packing materials. And the same goes for cereal boxes; discard the plastic bags inside the cereal boxes in the regular trash. Some recycling collectors might also require cardboard to be tied or taped together. This extra step helps prevent the wind from messing with all the cardboard.

Check with your municipal waste collection office to prepare your cardboard for recycling. The city, town, or community usually has some guidelines for how they require your cardboard recyclables.

General cardboard recycling instructions:

  • Remove the packing materials, including Styrofoam, packing peanuts, and bubble wrap.
  • Break down the box using a box cutter, knife, or scissors (remove the tape if you can).
  • Flatten your cardboard box into a pile (tie-up with twine if necessary).
  • Put it in the recycling bin, take it to your recycling center, or leave it for recycling pick-up.

When Cardboard Can’t be Recycled

There are occasions when you can't recycle corrugated cardboard and paperboard. The rules vary based on location, so check with your local recycling center or government for your area's specific regulations.

A typical uncertainty when it comes to recycling is a pizza box. Pizza boxes and other food containers are often contaminated with grease, rendering them useless for recycling. If that's the case, cut off the stained or soiled pieces of cardboard and recycle the rest of the box.

Tip

Greasy pizza boxes are not recyclable at a recycling center, but most commercial compost facilities happily accept them since food scraps and oils on a pizza box are a good source of carbon. If you're backyard composting, leave the greasy parts out because it slows down decomposition, causes odors, and can attract rodents.

Other cardboard items, such as juice containers, milk cartons, and some produce boxes, are coated with wax or similar substances. This coating often affects their ability to be recycled. So check these containers for a recycling symbol—typically a triangle composed of three arrows—as well as any instructions (e.g., "rinse and replace cap").

Some collectors also will not take cardboard or paperboard that's wet. That's because wetness weakens cardboard fibers and makes them less valuable for recycling centers. It also adds unnecessary weight to the cardboard that many centers don't want to pay for.

If you can't recycle cardboard, look for other uses for it around your house. If you compost, you can use cardboard in your compost pile. It can also line garden beds or as mulch for weed control. And, of course, you can reuse boxes for shipping or storage.

Where to Take Your Cardboard for Recycling

If you are unsure about where to take your cardboard for recycling, search the website for your town, city, or community regarding waste, garbage, or recycling management for your area. Depending on your locality, you may have curbside pickup. If you live in a multi-unit building or residential community, you may have special instructions you need to follow.

If you still can't find a recycling program in your area, search to see if you have a recycling center in your region. Go to earth911.com and click on "Where to Recycle" for a locator map identifying your nearest recycling center by zip code. Once you have identified a center, look up the recycling instructions, address, and how to drop off your recyclables.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Paper and paperboard: material-specific data.