How Is Cardboard Recycled?

Here at Our Happy Planet we understand there are few recyclables more ubiquitous than cardboard. Cardboard is what gives nearly every package mailed its shape. Cardboard is what many (if not most) products are packaged and stored in, and cardboard is one of the most commonly generated waste products in nearly any business. This is why cardboard recycling is so important in both the consumer and business world.

With so much cardboard being used it’s not surprising that EPA estimates say as many as 25 million tons of corrugated cardboard (which doesn’t include other types of products we generally consider cardboard, such as paperboard and chipboard) are disposed of each year. Fortunately, much of that—between half and ninety percent, depending on your source—is recycled each year. And a big part of that is because it’s so easy to recycle!

Not only can recycled cardboard be used to make new cardboard boxes, but it can also be downcycled into paperboard (which is what is used in products like cereal boxes) or chipboard (which is used in shoeboxes, for instance). And that has huge energy savings; 1 ton of recycled cardboard may save up to 9 cubic yards of landfill space and 3 tons of trees!

Read on to learn more about how to best recycle cardboard.

10 Cardboard Recycling Tips

Let’s start with 10 easy tips for cardboard recycling, after which we can dive into more detail.

  1. Keep your cardboard dry. Wet or otherwise, once cardboard is no longer dry, it’s much harder to recycle it.
  2. Break your cardboard down. This means flatten all boxes, which conserves space in the recycling containers and makes the cardboard easier to transport. Additionally, cardboard that hasn’t been broken down can be harder to feed into the cardboard-recycling machinery.
  3. Remove contaminants. This means any plastic that may be with your cardboard should be removed, for instance. Don’t worry about tape, however, as tape on the cardboard boxes can be dealt with at the recycling facilities.
  4. Develop your own recycling system. If you have a place where you can breakdown and store boxes, you can more easily take the cardboard to a recycling collection facility later, making it more likely that it will be recycled efficiently and correctly.
  5. Store well. That means somewhere where your cardboard can remain broken down and dry until you’re ready to take it somewhere.
  6. Keep your cardboard clean. As part of that storage, ensure your cardboard stays clean. Cardboard that has been contaminated by food stains, for instance, cannot be recycled, so remove those staining boxes from possibly contaminating the other cardboard.
  7. Keep food boxes away from the rest of your cardboard. Grease—and any food containing oil, really—can contaminate the rest of the cardboard. That’s because the cardboard recycling process requires using water, and water and oil don’t mix.
  8. Consider using a cardboard baler. Not only does a baler compact cardboard efficiently, it can be a cheaper way to store your cardboard than a traditional dumpster.
  9. Use cardboard to help recycle cardboard. Additionally, cardboard can be used to help transport the rest of your recyclable cardboard, provided you keep it dry, anyway.
  10. Use cardboard creatively. As we discussed previously, not all of your cardboard can or should be recycled. That doesn’t mean it has to be garbage, however. Cardboard can serve as a great part of compost when handled appropriately. And if you aren’t going to use it in your garden or compost, consider reaching out to whoever may be responsible for your office landscape, or donate it somewhere where they compost.

Regardless of how little or much cardboard you may have in your life, these ten tips can help you get a great start on using your cardboard in a sustainable way.

Cardboard Recycling Facts

Is Cardboard Garbage or Recycle?

As we discussed above, not all cardboard is recyclable. Much of it is, however—provided you take good care of it, keep it dry and free of food stains or other soiling, and flatten it.  Keep in mind, too, that cardboard that might otherwise end up in the garbage might still be suitable for compost or other landscaping/gardening purposes.

Keep in mind, though, that the following items can take otherwise recyclable cardboard and turn it into garbage:

  • Wet cardboard cannot be recycled.
  • Contaminating cardboard (whether by plastics, food stains, or other kinds of soiling) cannot be recycled.
  • Unflattened cardboard may not be recyclable, depending on the facility.

How Do You Dispose of Cardboard?

Disposing of cardboard can work in one of several ways. Sure, you can just throw it away—but in most cases, that cardboard can be recycled.

Assuming that your cardboard isn’t disqualified from recycling (remember the list from just above?), it still needs to be prepared appropriately.

So let’s talk about how you do that, how to best prepare cardboard for recycling.

How To Recycle Cardboard

Recycling cardboard should be straightforward and easy. There are a few things you’ll need to keep in mind, though.

First, keeping the two types of cardboard straight isn’t necessary; most places don’t differentiate between corrugated cardboard (the three-layer cardbboard used in packing boxes and other heavier-duty cardboard products) and paperboard or chipboard, both of which are single layer, much thinner cardboard—like what’s used for cereal boxes or shoe boxes.

Second, your cardboard needs to be in good shape. That means that it can’t be contaminated, coated, soiled, or wet. What does that mean? Food boxes, for instance, are often not recyclable, either because they have food stains (such as from oil or grease) or because they are wax-coated (such as with juice boxes or milk containers). Similarly, soiled or otherwise dirty cardboard often can’t be recycled, and many cardboard recycling centers won’t take cardboard if it is wet, as it’s more likely to disintegrate.

Third, you should be neat and orderly with your cardboard. That means it should just be cardboard, for instance, and not any of the packing materials that might have come with that cardboard. Similarly, you should break your cardboard down so it stacks neatly. Large items may need to be folded, as well. This allows the cardboard to travel more neatly, makes it less likely to fly away in the wind, and is necessary for the cardboard to be fed into the machines used to break down the cardboard in the recycling facilities.

Lastly, store your cardboard somewhere safe (where it will stay dry, clean, and unsoiled) until you have enough (and the time) to take it to a cardboard recycling collection center.

How Do You Prepare Cardboard for Recycling?

By using the simple steps we just discussed above! As long as your cardboard is recyclable (that it is, it isn’t contaminated, soiled, waxy, or wet), it’s pretty straightforward.

Remove any shipping materials, break down your cardboard (use knife or scissors to cut whatever tape was used to seal the top or bottom, then simply collapse the box into a flat object). If it’s a really large box, you may need to fold it after flattening it in order to save space, but really, it’s pretty simple.

And it’s pretty simple to find a drop-off location. You can simply Google cardboard recycling and your zip code, for instance, and odds are good that numerous locations will show up in the results.

Can Cardboard Boxes Be Recycled?

Most of the time, yes!

The truth is, by now you know what to do with cardboard that can be recycled. You know that it needs to be clean, dry, and can’t be contaminated or waxy.

But what about when you have a ton of cardboard, more than you can put in your curbside recycling? Maybe you just ordered a bunch of stuff or moved, for instance. What do you do then?

You have options. Let’s look at those options below.

  1. Drop your cardboard off at your local recycling center. This is also an option if you live somewhere that doesn’t have curbside cardboard recycling collection. Most recycling centers have large dumpsters capable of accepting large quantities of cardboard, so provided you have done a good job of storing your cardboard, you can simply load the cardboard into your vehicle (or rent a van or pickup if necessary), drive it over, and drop it off. Most recycling centers accept cardboard at no charge, too, which is pretty great. Similarly, there may be private businesses in your area that already collect large quantities of cardboard for recycling; depending on the business, you may have be able to drop your cardboard off to be recycled with their boxes. Recycle Nation has a great Recycle Search tool you can use here, for instance.
  2. Give your cardboard away for reuse. Even if you live in a small town, odds are good someone else can use your cardboard boxes for their needs, such as packing up for a move. Craigslist or other community resources (such as local Facebook groups) or similar resources like U-Haul’s Customer Connect online forum are ways to help connect your old boxes with others who can use them. University listserves or bulletin boards are also ways to connect with someone who might need your boxes.
  3. Give your cardboard away for composting. Cardboard can be a great way to help out a community garden, landscaping organization, or even a local friend with a green thumb, as it can break down and create organic matter or mulch. It can also help create a barrier if you lay it down before soil to help keep out weeds. Shredded cardboard can also be used to create garden paths, for instance.
  4. Rent a cardboard dumpster. While this may end up costing you, it can be a great option if you have a ton of cardboard to get rid of. You can work with a waste hauling company that will deliver a dumpster and then take it away a day or week later, depending on the specified terms of your contract. Depending on the contractor, too, you may be able to specify that you would like the cardboard recycled.

Finally, another way to boost cardboard recycling is to use recycled boxes yourself! Or even, better reuse boxes yourself. For instance, if you need to move, consider using Craigslist, U-Haul’s Customer Connect, or local Facebook groups to find boxes that have previously been used. You can otherwise consider asking a local grocery store or liquor store if they have old boxes you can use.

If you don’t have luck going any of those routes, consider purchasing boxes made from 100 percent recycled paper; quite a few companies make them, and this can ensure that you’re getting boxes of uniform size and shape, for instance.

10 Interesting Facts About Cardboard Recycling

  1. Roughly 75 billion cardboard boxes are recycled each year in the United States.
  2. Roughly 100 billion cardboard boxes are produced each year in the United States.
  3. If you just did that math, that means somewhere in the neighborhood of 75% of boxes made each year get recycled.
  4. 1 ton of recycled cardboard may save up to 9 cubic yards of landfill space and 3 tons of trees.
  5. Recycling 1 ton of cardboard also saves 46 gallons of oil. Depending on your vehicle, that’s likely 2-3 tanks of gas!
  6. Recycling 1 ton of cardboard also saves 390 kilowatt hours of electricity. For comparison, that’s the equivalent of running a medium-sized window air conditioner nonstop for 390 hours—which is more than 2 weeks!
  7. More than 90% if all products shipped in the United States are shipped in corrugated cardboard boxes. That’s more than 400 billion square feet of cardboard!
  8. Recycling cardboard only takes 75% of the energy needed to make new cardboard—or less, depending on the source.
  9. Amazon ships most of their products in cardboard boxes. Given that 27 million items sold on Amazon on Cyber Monday (the busiest sales day of the year) alone, that’s an awful lot of cardboard boxes!
  10. The first corrugated cardboard box was manufactured in Brooklyn in 1895; by the early 1900’s, cardboard boxes were replacing wooden crates and boxes.

Cardboard Recycling FAQs

Can Wet Cardboard Be Recycled?

Yes and no. While some places will accept wet cardboard for recyling, the vast majority will not. Fortunately, it can be pretty easy to keep your cardboard dry. Simply store it appropriately (somewhere where it will stay flat and dry and free of soiling contaminants), and you’ll stay in great shape!

Can Paperboard Be Recycled With Cardboard?

Most places will accept paperboard and chipboard right along with other cardboards, including corrugated cardboard. As with other cardboards, simply ensure that you’ve kept your paperboard clean, dry, free of contaminants, and flatten before dropping off at a recycling collection center.

How Should I Be Recycling Cardboard Boxes?

Consider the ten cardboard recycling tips we suggested before. To simplify it even further:

  1. Keep your cardboard dry, clean, and free of soiling or contamination.
  2. Store your cardboard somewhere where it can stay dry, clean, and free of soiling or contaminants.
  3. Break your cardboard down.

Voila! Take your dry, clean, broken-down cardboard to a recycling center or recycling collection center and you’re done!

Do I Need To Remove Tape and Labels From the Box?

Nope! You need to make sure your cardboard boxes are dry, clean, and free of contaminants or food soiling, but you don’t need to worry about tape or labels, as those can be dealt with in the cardboard recycling process. You do, however, need to flatten your cardboard boxes so they can be more easily transported and then fed into the processing machines at the recycling facility.

Where Can You Take Cardboard To Be Recycled?

Most local municipalities either offer curbside cardboard recycling, a local recycling center, or both. If that’s the case in your neighborhood, take advantage! Additionally, consider private companies that may have recycling yards. There are easy ways to search for cardboard recycling near you; one of our favorites is RecycleNation’s Recycle Search tool.

Free Cardboard Recycling Near Me

Most cardboard recycling is free. If your local municipality doesn’t offer curbside recycling or a local recycling center where you can drop off cardboard for recycling, third-party searches like  RecycleNation’s Recycle Search tool can help. They are a great resource for anyone looking for a cardboard recycling drop off near me.

Recycling Cardboard For Money

While most people never consider it, there are ways to recycle cardboard for money; in fact, there are companies out there that may pay as much as 50 cents to 2 dollars per box, depending on the size of those boxes.

While you can sell boxes on Craigslist to people looking for boxes to move, there are other sites that are designed specifically for the sale of boxes. Most will specify that they’re only interested in larger boxes, and only corrugated cardboard boxes, but the following sites will buy boxes from you:

  • BoxCycle.com
  • BoxSmart.com
  • ContainerExchanger.com
  • ReboxCorp.com
  • UsedCardboardBoxes.com

With each of those sites you’ll generally make at least 50 cents per box. Additionally, it may be worth calling your local recycling center, as some of them may be willing to pay for boxes. Even if they may not pay as much, they may be easier to work with on account of how much closer they are.

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