The holiday shopping season is here—alongside a barrage of cardboard packages arriving at the door. Between ordering gifts for the holidays and treating yourself to some sweet seasonal online discounts, many households are bound to receive an awful lot of packages around this time of year. Anxiously awaiting your items via free rushed shipping can be fun, but dealing with all the waste generated from their packaging is far less thrilling.
Is Cardboard Recyclable?
Cardboard is one of the most commonly generated waste products. Over 90% of items shipped in the U.S. are packaged in cardboard. The EPA estimates that over 68 million tons of paper and cardboard are generated every year.
The good news is that cardboard is one of the easiest things in the world to recycle. In fact, 92% of all corrugated boxes were recycled in 2015. If you’re expecting a small mountain of packages at your front door this holiday season, there’s no excuse not to recycle them properly.
The Two Types of Cardboard
There are two types of cardboard. The first type of cardboard is called “corrugated” cardboard and you can identify it by the wavy inner layer of the cardboard. It’s the type used to make brown packing boxes—this is the same kind of cardboard many cat scratchers are made from. The second type is called “paperboard” and it’s thinner than its corrugated counterpart. This type of packing is often used for cereal boxes and other items. Both forms are recyclable.
Online Sales Are Driving Cardboard Use Up
Online ordering is getting more convenient every day, but it comes at a price. The rise of e-commerce has caused a huge spike in the demand for cardboard boxes. According to the American Forest & Paper Association, cardboard use went up 8% between 2013 and 2018.
Unfortunately, while cardboard use has increased, recycling has declined. In 2017, 300,000 fewer tons of corrugated boxes were recycled in the U.S. than in 2016. Without cardboard coming back to the facilities through recycling centers, manufacturers need to cut down more trees to create the cardboard required for packaging.
What are the Benefits of Recycling Cardboard?
In the United States, 96% of people have access to some sort of curbside or community recycling program for paper and cardboard. If everyone made full use of it, the environmental benefits would be significant.
Diverts Cardboard from Landfill
Recycling just one ton of cardboard saves around 9 cubic yards of landfill space.
Cardboard recycling uses 76% less energy than manufacturing fresh cardboard from trees.
Reduces Your Carbon Footprint
The process of cutting down trees, transportation, and processing the raw materials into paper and cardboard is very resource intensive. Recycling just one ton of cardboard saves around 46 gallons of oil.
Incinerating 10,000 tons of cardboard waste creates one job. Sticking that same 10,000 tons in a landfill creates six jobs. However, recycling 10,000 tons of cardboard opens up 36 jobs. In the U.S., recycling programs have created 1.1 million jobs, $236 billion in gross annual sales, and $37 billion in annual payroll.
Not recycling cardboard and paper products would mean that we have to harvest 80% more trees to meet growing demands for cardboard packaging. With recycling, we only need to harvest 20% as much wood.
How To Prepare Cardboard for Recycling?
Cardboard recycling is easy, but there are a few things to keep in mind to keep the process simple for you and your local recycling center.
- Keep it dry
Cardboard becomes difficult to recycle when wet, so try to keep it in a place where moisture can’t reach it.
- Break it down
Flatten the cardboard as much as you can to conserve space in curbside recycling bins and make it easier to transport. Flat boxes are also easier for the cardboard recycling center to process.
- Remove plastic and other contaminants
Cut away any attached plastic before recycling. You don’t absolutely have to remove any tape or labels, but if you do, the employees at recycling facilities will definitely appreciate your efforts.
- Use it as transport
If you have other recyclables such as paper, glass, and plastic, use your recyclable cardboard to transport them to the nearest drop-off center. Then you can recycle the box and go home empty-handed. Just be sure to break down the box before you recycle it.
- Take it outside
Cardboard is biodegradable and makes a great addition to your compost heap, but large pieces of cardboard won’t break down easily. Cut your cardboard into smaller pieces to aid the composting process.
- Create a system
It’s much easier to recycle frequently if you create a system. Figure out what the easiest way to recycle your cardboard is to save you time and hassle in the long run.
When Not to Recycle Cardboard?
Cardboard that’s saturated in food grease can’t be recycled. That means that greasy pizza box has to go in the trash, but you may be able to cut off the top of the box and recycle that if it’s grease-free. Other cardboard products that can’t be recycled may include juice containers, milk cartons, and other produce boxes that are resin or wax-coated.
What are Tips for Reducing Packaging Waste?
Recycling is great, but it’s only one-third of the famous three R’s — reduce, reuse, recycle. Let’s talk about the other two.
Opt for Eco-Friendly Retailers
When comparing two similar products online, go with the retailer that uses recyclable, eco-friendly packing material. Even better, choose a retailer that uses minimal packaging. Some retailers let you leave a comment on your profile so you can request less packaging.
Food ordered online tends to come with a lot of packing material like dry ice in boxes and bubble mailers for cold items. Instead of getting your groceries online, go to the actual grocery store. Bring your own reusable tote bags to carry your groceries. You get bonus points if you bring your own cloth produce or bulk bags with you and walk to the store.
Make Bulk Online Orders
Online retailers make it so easy to click “Buy Now” that you probably do so several times a week. Instead, save online purchases in your cart until you have a few that you can buy all at once. Five items in one big box generate less waste than five items in five boxes. Pay attention when you’re checking out. If you have one small item that will ship separately, save it for next time.
Before buying a new product online, check your local thrift stores. Second-hand products generally come without packaging. You’re also helping to divert perfectly good items from the landfill by freeing up space on the shelves of your local second-hand store or charity shop.
Reusing your cardboard is always a great way to make sure it doesn’t go to waste. If your cardboard packaging boxes are in good shape, use them on your child’s next project, use them to store miscellaneous items around the house (like maybe all those new holiday decorations), or save them for your next move.
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- “Paper and Paperboard: Material-Specific Data.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Last updated January 19, 2017. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/paper-and-paperboard-material-specific-data.
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- Eaton K. “Ninety-six Percent of Americans Have Access to Community Paper Recycling.” American Forest & Paper Association. Published March 10, 2015. https://afandpa.org/media/news/2015/03/10/ninety-six-percent-of-americans-have-access-to-community-paper-recycling.
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- “Recycling Facts & Tips.” Teton County. Accessed December 11, 2018. http://www.tetoncountywy.gov/DocumentCenter/View/500/Recycling-Facts-and-Tips-PDF.
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