How to Recycle Cardboard
Few materials offer consumers more incentive to recycle than ordinary cardboard. In overall paper consumption, the average American uses up the equivalent of seven trees per year and much of this is cardboard. According to some recycling advocates, every ton of recycled cardboard saves 9 cubic yards of landfill space. And the manufacture of recycled cardboard only uses around 75 percent of the energy needed to make new cardboard.
Besides car batteries, cardboard is recycled more than any other material in the U.S. Corrugated boxes have a recycling rate of 96.5 percent. Of the massive amounts of cardboard recycled each year, fully half of it is used in the creation of new corrugated cardboard boxes, while the rest is usually downcycled into paperboard and chipboard used for cereal boxes or shoe boxes.
But not all cardboard is created equally and is recycled in the same way, and methods for preparing cardboard for recycling can vary from community to community. For the system to work correctly, it's important to make sure you're recycling correctly.
What Is Cardboard?
The term cardboard is a generic term for heavy-grade cellulose paper products often used for packaging or shipping. It can range from simple paperboard used for cartoning cereals and other food products to heavy-duty corrugated material used for protecting goods during shipping. Because cardboard makes use of the longest paper fibers of any paper product, it is especially well-suited and valuable as a recyclable.
What You'll Need
Equipment / Tools
- Utilty knife or box cutter (optional)
- Twine or packing tape (if needed)
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 generally known as paperboard or chipboard. It is a single layer of grayish cardboard used to make items such as cereal boxes, shoe boxes, and other packages.
Both corrugated cardboard and various lower grades of paperboard and chipboard are acceptable as recyclables in nearly all communities. But when the cardboard has been coated with wax or another sealing substance, as is often done with cardboard milk or juice containers, or frozen food boxes, it renders the cardboard unsuitable for recycling. Nor can you recycle corrugated cardboard used for pizza or food delivery boxes if they are stained with food.
You can speed the process of preparing the cardboard for recycling day if you make an ongoing practice of sorting out the recyclable from the non-recyclable cardboard on a daily basis.
How to Prepare Cardboard for Recycling
Remove Non-Recyclable Cardboard
Sort through the discarded cardboard and remove any items that are not recyclable. This includes food-stained containers or cardboard that has been treated with wax or other substances to make it water-proof. 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"). Remove any coated cardboard items that don't carry this recycling symbol.
These non-recyclables will need to be disposed of as household trash, or by whatever method is recommended in your community.
Remove Tape, Staples, Etc.
Many community recycling programs require you to remove any foreign materials from cardboard boxes, including packing foam, bubble wrap, tape, or staples. With cereal boxes and other dry food containers, make sure to remove any inner plastic bags or inserts.
Cut Large Pieces (If Needed)
Large corrugated cardboard boxes may be too large for recycling bins, and these can be cut into smaller pieces using a utility knife or scissors.
Flatten and Bundle the Cardboard (If Required)
Some recycling programs also require cardboard to be tied or taped together in bundles. This requirement is common in communities that don't provide weatherproof recycling bins. This extra step helps prevent the wind from scattering the cardboard and also makes pickup easier.
Recycle the Cardboard
Communities with recycling programs have different procedures for handling cardboard. If you have been provided with a large recycling container, the loose cardboard can be simply tossed into the container prior to the pickup day.
Or, you may be instructed to set out tied bundles of cardboard at the curb or alley on the morning of scheduled pickup. With this procedure, take care not to leave the bundles out in wet weather, as this will make pickup difficult.
If your community has no established recycling program, or if you live in a rural area, it will be up to you to transport the bundled cardboard to a commercial recycling center. If so, make sure to call ahead so you can comply with whatever preparation steps are required.
Some collectors 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.
Finding a Recycling Center
If your community does not have a recycling program, 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.
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 be used to line garden beds or as mulch for weed control. And, of course, you can reuse boxes for shipping or storage.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Paper and paperboard: material-specific data.