How to Recycle Cardboard

It is not as simple as you might think

A room full of packing boxes and a laptop
Gary Burchell / Getty Images

Recycling cardboard should be easy, and according to the EPA, some 77 percent of all cardboard is recycled. However, not all cardboard can be recycled and it can be tricky remembering which is which. What are the facts on recycling cardboard?

Types of Cardboard

There are two kinds of cardboard. The first is known as corrugated cardboard which is used to make brown packing boxes. You can identify it by the wavy inner layer of cardboard, making it a kind of three-layer sandwich of cardboard. The other type is called paperboard (sometimes called chipboard). It is a single layer of gray cardboard that's used to make things like cereal boxes, shoe boxes, and other packages.

When To Recycle Cardboard 

In most cases, cardboard can be recycled, though recycling collectors often require that cardboard boxes be flattened before collection. Things like tape, labels, and other items can all be left on the cardboard (they'll be removed at the recycling center). Some collection companies require cardboard to be tied or taped together, this is usually to prevent the wind from making a mess. When you start to recycle cardboard you will be amazed by the number of boxes you throw away each week. It's a common way to package many household products. 

When Not to Recycle Cardboard

However, corrugated cardboard and paperboard can't always be recycled. Pizza boxes and other food containers are often contaminated with grease, rendering them useless for recycling. Other cardboard containers are coated with wax or other substances to give them more strength when wet—these usually can't be recycled, either. Juice containers, milk cartons, and some produce boxes are resin- or wax-coated and are not always recyclable.

Some collectors will not take cardboard or paperboard that's wet. In all cases, check with your local recycling center or city government (check Earth911 for contact information).

Benefits of Recycling Cardboard

If you can't recycle cardboard, there might be other uses for it around your house. If you compost, cardboard can be used 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 it as a cardboard box for shipping or storage.

You might want to take these statistics with a grain of salt, but according to some recycling advocates, every ton of recycled cardboard saves nine cubic yards of landfill space (or three cubic yards, depending on who you ask). Other advocates say that recycling cardboard saves 25 percent of the energy needed to make new cardboard.

Regardless of which statistics you believe, it's common sense that recycling cardboard is a more sustainable option than cutting down trees to make virgin paper or cardboard products. For more specific information on recycling in your community, check with your local recycling center or municipal government. You can help keep the Earth healthy with simple steps like reusing your shoe boxes.