Is Cardboard Recyclable? Everything You Need To Know

Man carrying a container with cardboad for recycling

Cardboard recycling has become more accessible in recent years, with Old Corrugated Cardboard/Containers (OCC) having a recovery rate of 96.4% in 2018. And this is a good thing because as we look around today, it is possible to see cardboard in every aspect of our life. Everything we enjoy seems to come in plastic or cardboard, from pizza boxes to sustainable living products. So what are we supposed to do?

Cardboard is a fantastic product that doesn’t have to reenter the recycling stream immediately. These products can act as packaging for gifts and storage before finding their way to the recycling bin. But you may be wondering, “how is cardboard recycled” or maybe countless other cardboard recycling questions. In this article, we explore a few of those questions, such as:

But before we can dive into these topics, let’s first take the time to answer the question, “is cardboard recyclable?”


Can you recycle cardboard?

Cardboard boxes on a conveyor

Yes. You can recycle both boxboard and corrugated cardboard at your local recycling centers. When recycled, the cardboard boxes are processed and blended with reduced fresh pulp to create new cardboard requiring less energy and virgin resources.

The type of cardboard approved for recycling will vary depending on your local recycling center. Typically, waxy or plastic-coated products are not recycled because the plastic cannot easily separate from the cardboard. Cardboard products soiled by oil stains or chemical products are also not accepted as these can disrupt the recycling process. In addition, recycling facilities will not take wet cardboard because the fibers become warped and harder to reprocess after the cardboard dries. Soggy cardboard is also heavier, making it more expensive to acquire and further reducing the profitability of the recycling process.


 


 

How to recycle cardboard: 4 easy steps

Flattened cardboard piled inside a grey recycle bin

Cardboard finds its way to our doorsteps in various forms. From cereal boxes to shoe boxes, it seems like cardboard is everywhere. Luckily for us, because cardboard is easy to recycle, most cities have a cardboard recycling program. Remember this step-by-step process to ensure your cardboard finds its way to a local recycling center when preparing for recycling day.

  1. Remove packing materials: Once you have finished with your cardboard box, dispose of any packaging contents like plastic bags or packing peanuts. These materials, if recyclable, will not be recycled at the same location as cardboard. Moreover, your local collection program may not take your cardboard if you leave these plastics inside your cardboard recycling.
  2. Break down the box: With unnecessary materials removed, break down the box until it is flat. In some instances, it is possible to disassemble boxes by hand, like cereal boxes and other flimsy boxboard products. The sharp edge from a knife or box cutter is better suited for thicker, corrugated cardboard. Now is also an excellent time to remove any pieces of cardboard tainted by grease or chemical stains because recycling groups don’t collect these. If your city requires it, also remove any tape or staples at this stage.
  3. Flatten cardboard into a pile: With the cardboard broken down, stack them into a neat pile and tie them together. It is essential to secure your stacks of cardboard with a piece of twine or in a recycling bin to limit space and reduce the likelihood of the wind taking away your cardboard. The last thing you want is to come out to collect your recycling bin to see your cardboard blown across the neighborhood.
  4. Recycle: The last step is to recycle all the cardboard you have saved over the previous week or month. Most municipalities will have a recycling program that will allow for curbside recycling pickup. If you live in an apartment, you may need to follow specific recycling guidelines provided by the property managers. And in the event curbside pickup is unavailable, it may be best to reach out to your local recycling center to ask about their cardboard recycling process.

 


 

Where to recycle cardboard

Bales of cardboard stacked on each other

Depending on the town’s size, a cardboard recycling facility may be local or several cities away. Luckily, you often won’t need to worry about transporting your cardboard to a recycling depot. Most towns will have scheduled a curbside pickup posted on their website or are available upon contacting them. These locations will also often provide information on what products can be recycled locally.

Maybe your town doesn’t have curbside pickup. In that event, it may be best for you to reach out to your local municipality and figure out where the nearest recycling depot is for cardboard dropoff. Sites are often available locally and will take your cardboard from you. Suppose a depot isn’t open in your town. In that case, it may be beneficial to save your cardboard over an extended period to make the trek to a distant recycling facility worthwhile.

Finally, there may be special recycling instructions if you live in a multi-unit apartment complex. Often these places will have a community recycling bin if recycling is available. Reach out to your property manager and inquire if there are any limitations on which cardboard products are acceptable and what days pickup is.


How else can cardboard be recycled?

Recycling cardboard is a relatively straightforward process compared to plastics, but this doesn’t mean it is always available. In locations where recycling isn’t an option, what else can be done with at-home cardboard products before they are in the regular trash as cardboard waste?


1. Cardboard is compostable

Cardboard box that reads hundred percent compostable on a table

One way to get more use of your cardboard at home is to incorporate it into your compost as one of the crunchy brown materials. These carbon-rich products, like newspaper, dry leaves, and sawdust, mix with your nitrogen-rich greens. If you’ve ever noticed your compost beginning to smell bad, it means you need more carbon-rich materials. Always cut down cardboard into more manageable strips before sprinkling it into your compost, ensuring a timely breakdown.

The Lomi is an excellent way to break down cardboard in the comfort of your kitchen. Your countertop composter can break down products such as unwaxed cardboard, paperboard, and other paper items. Before adding them, always break down the oversized compostable products into a more manageable size. This additional step allows the Lomi to efficiently grind and break down the product.

 

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2. Be creative: reuse your cardboard

Mother helping son cut a piece of cardboard

Undamaged cardboard is an excellent material with numerous uses for tasks around the house. Old cereal boxes can have a new life being used to store food from your next trip to the grocer. Or, use what could be cardboard waste as a way to organize a shelf or desk drawer. Keeping your old cardboard boxes intact can serve many purposes in and out of the kitchen.

Cardboard boxes also make a great addition to household crafting as well! Use cardboard strips in model construction to get that perfect tiled roof, or even as an entire cardboard dollhouse. There are countless possibilities of things children can craft at home with cardboard; some they can do alone, and others may require supervision. Or, if you’re a cat owner, you can turn corrugated cardboard shipping boxes into complex cat condominiums.


3. Use your cardboard for gift-giving

Excited woman opening a cardboard box in living room setting

Cardboard boxes can find life repeatedly in the spirit of gift-giving. Because this product is so widely used, it is easy to accumulate a cardboard box for every possible item. Reusing old cereal boxes to gift a shirt or shoe boxes to hold a bundle of smaller gifts reduces the need for new cardboard. This form of recycling saves you money on packaging materials. It also reduces the energy needed to produce new cardboard and paperboard.

Since there are numerous types of cardboard on the market, here are two main things to remember. If you are gifting a heavier item, sturdy corrugated containers would be preferable. Corrugated cardboard has a wavy layer of cardboard between the two liner sheets, creating a thick wall and making these boxes more durable. And if your cardboard has become wet or comes in contact with grease or chemicals, don’t use these items for gifting. They can damage the container’s integrity or may ruin the gifts inside.


Six cardboard recycling FAQs

There is so much more to cardboard than a single-use container thrown into the trash or recycling bin. Let’s dive a little deeper into understanding cardboard and whether it is possible to recycle cardboard boxes of different types.


1. Why recycle cardboard?

Man wearing a mask outdoors and carrying recycling box of cardboard

Recycling cardboard saves trees, water, and energy necessary to produce virgin cardboard, making it an environmentally responsible action that starts at home. Cardboard recycling also reduces the amount of cardboard waste entering landfills. And even more, it can create jobs at recycling centers!

Did you know that when manufacturers produce virgin cardboard, three tons of trees are required to make a ton of cardboard? Recycled cardboard reduces the overall tonnage necessary and needs only 75% of the energy to make them. And for every one ton of cardboard that finds its way into the recycling bin, nine cubic yards of cardboard waste are prevented from entering the landfill. All of this makes recycling cardboard a must for a sustainable home.


2. How is cardboard recycled?

Industrial conveyor moving cardboard towards processing

After the cardboard is left to pick up, it undergoes a five-step process: collection, sorting, shredding and pulping, filtering, and finishing. This process takes the old cardboard and blends it with new material while removing impurities before rolling out fresh sheets ready for use.

Upon collection, your local recycling center will sort between the boxboard and corrugated boxes. Boxes are then shredded into smaller pieces and mixed into a water and chemical mixture. Fresh pulp is incorporated into the slurry and blended, which will help solidify the substance. The filtering stage acts to remove impurities like leftover tape, glue, plastic, metal staples, and even ink. Finally, the product is cleaned and run over a conveyor belt and heated cylinders to press out excess water. The cardboard eventually becomes long rolls that will later be made into the cardboard products we often see.


3. Is corrugated cardboard recyclable?

Industrial roll of corrugated cardboard

Yes, it is possible to recycle corrugated cardboard. Because these thicker cardboard boxes are usually used for large products or packing, breaking down the packing boxes before recycling is crucial. Some recycling companies will not accept cardboard not adequately prepared.

Corrugated cardboard is an essential item to have in the house. These are often the brown packing boxes we all know and use when moving or packing things away for the season. Instead of always buying new cardboard boxes every year, consider giving a new purpose to these moving boxes as storage. And once they have begun to show a few moves worth of wear and tear, see that this cardboard is recycled.


4. Is glossy cardboard recyclable?

Stack of cardboard food containers on a table outdoors

Yes, glossy cardboard is recyclable. If you’re unsure if your local recycling center can process glossy cardboard, most towns will have a website detailing recycling guidelines. Some cardboard products also have a visible recycling Mobius with recycling instructions.

But don’t confuse glossy for waxy or plastic, which is not recyclable. One way to see what type of cardboard you have you can attempt to scratch the wax off. Or, if you believe it is plastic, you can try to tear it, and if it does not rip, it’s plastic.


5. Is recycled cardboard recyclable?

Image of a cardboard box with a hundred percent recycled notice

Yes, recycled cardboard boxes are recyclable. Most cardboard on the market today is at least partially made from recycled paper fibers. But regardless of the cardboard type, papers have an upward recycle limit between 5 to 7 times. At which point the paper fibers are too short.


6. Is wet cardboard recyclable?

Pile of wet cardboard outdoors

No, wet cardboard is not recyclable. After the paper becomes wet, the quality of the paper fibers warps through drying, and it becomes less viable for recycling. Since this cardboard carries a higher price per weight due to the water absorbed, there is no market for wet cardboard.

It is important not to put cardboard out on days it is supposed to rain. Or, if you do, ensure that it is kept dry. There is nothing enjoyable about recycling, only to watch it get thrown in the garbage instead.

Cardboard is a fantastic product that can be used and reused before sending it away to be recycled into more. Luckily for us, recycling cardboard can be easy, so easy that most towns have been doing it for decades. But cardboard doesn’t always have to go into the recycling bin; it can find a place in your home compost bin.

Even Lomi can compost cardboard! It’s a great way to add carbon-rich materials to the food scraps and organic waste you’ve kept from the landfill. If you’ve got the time, take a moment to explore some of the reviews left by Lomi customers.


Written by: Tanner Sagouspe