How to Recycle Cardboard

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.

Ultimately, it's common sense that recycling cardboard is a more sustainable option than cutting down trees to make virgin paper products. You just 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. The first is known as corrugated cardboard, which is 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 called 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, but it can be torn much more easily than corrugated cardboard.

When to Recycle Cardboard 

Cardboard is made from wood fiber, so recycling it saves both landfill space and trees. Most cardboard products can be recycled (boxes, tubes, etc.), but there are usually some conditions you must follow.

Some waste management companies require that cardboard boxes be flattened before collection. It's OK to leave tape, labels, and other items on the cardboard, as they'll be removed at the recycling center. But you should take out any bubble wrap and other packing materials. Companies also might require cardboard to be tied or taped together. This usually is to prevent the wind from making a mess.

When Not to Recycle Cardboard

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

A common 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 any clean portions of cardboard for recycling, and throw the rest in the trash.

Other cardboard items, such as juice containers, milk cartons, and some produce boxes, are coated with wax or similar substances. This 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 it 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, 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 boxes for shipping or storage.