Is Burning Cardboard Bad for the Environment? (6 Facts)


Is Burning Cardboard Bad for the Environment

Unfortunately, as we will discuss, burning cardboard is by no means environmentally friendly.

While cardboard itself is a biomass material derived from plants, burning it can have detrimental effects such as the release of harmful chemicals, contribution to pollution, impact on climate change, and associated health risks. 

In this article, we look at the ins and outs of the issue, discuss the legality of cardboard burning and the best disposal method.

1. Is Burning Cardboard Eco-Friendly?

No, burning cardboard is not eco-friendly.

In a study, researchers discovered that half of the samples of cardboard packaging materials they studied were found to contain a high amount of phthalates.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals typically used to achieve plasticizing effects on cards, giving them strength and durability.

While virgin cardboard itself does not contain plasticizers, the adhesives used on cardboard packaging, inks, and similar additions often do.

Moreover, since cardboard recycling rates are typically high in the US (reaching 68% in 2021), this has been found to further exacerbate the problem as the pulp from recycled waste fibers used in cardboard manufacturing often carries remnants of phthalates.

This is an issue when it comes to burning cardboard because it means that these chemicals get released into the atmosphere, along with other contaminating compounds such as additives, dyes, and surfactants.

Scientists point out this can lead to a number of environmental issues, namely in the form of harmful particulate matter, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), leading to widespread effects in the quality of air, terrestrial and aquatic environments.

2. Does Burning Cardboard Cause Pollution?

Like burning paper, burning cardboard – being a biomass – causes pollution in the form of several damaging emissions.

Biomass, in simple terms, includes any organic materials that come from plants or animals – in the case of cardboard, this would be wood and the fibrous pulp used in its manufacturing.

Biomass is often burned to produce energy because it contains high amounts of carbon. 

However, according to research, this composition also means that other, less environmentally-friendly components get released as well, such as:

  • Carbon dioxide: CO2 is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change by trapping the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, causing incremental average temperature rises.

It can remain in the atmosphere for as long as 1000 years. We also see that elevated levels of CO2 can lead to health effects such as headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and increased heart rate.

  • POAs (primary organic aerosols): These are organic particles that are directly emitted into the atmosphere during combustion. 

POAs can contribute to the formation of particulate matter (PM), which is a known air pollutant. 

Inhalation of PM can have adverse health effects, particularly for the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

  • SOx (sulfur oxides): According to research, burning cardboard contributes significantly to the release of the gas sulfur dioxide.

This gas is known to play a role in the formation of acid rain, which can harm sensitive ecosystems. 

At high concentrations, gaseous SO2 can damage foliage and decrease the growth of trees and plants. 

3. Does Burning Cardboard Contribute to Climate Change?

Yes, burning cardboard does contribute to climate change.

For instance, one of the most significant factors of burning cardboard is the release and generation of black carbon.

The EPA describes black carbon as “the sooty black material” that comes from various sources of combustion, with around 59% coming directly from biomass burning.

Black carbon has the ability to absorb light and heat from the sun. When it is present in the atmosphere, it can warm the air and impact weather patterns. 

The absorption of light by black carbon can cause changes in rain and cloud patterns, potentially leading to alterations in regional and global climate systems.

Moreover, research highlights that black carbon has a significant impact on polar regions.

When black carbon particles are deposited on snow and ice surfaces, they darken the surface, reducing its ability to reflect sunlight. 

Instead, the black carbon absorbs heat, accelerating the melting process.

This phenomenon contributes to the loss of polar ice, leading to rising sea levels and other related environmental changes.

Another aspect to consider is PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which are a group of persistent (i.e., long-lasting) compounds that get generated through the burning of biomasses such as cardboard.

Research highlights they can disperse globally due to their semi-volatile nature, moving between the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface through repeated cycles of settling in the soil or water and then converting from a solid or liquid state back into the air as a gas.

PAHs are considered “multimedia contaminants”, meaning they can be found in various environmental compartments such as the atmosphere, water bodies, sediments, soils, and vegetation. 

Their effects, therefore, vary considerably from ozone depletion to toxification of water and soil.

4. Is Burning Cardboard Toxic?

Based on what we’ve discussed, yes, burning cardboard is toxic.

Aside from the particulate and CO2 emissions which can bring on a variety of respiratory issues, you also have to remember that cardboard is often treated with a concoction of chemicals to give it strength and durability.

For instance, the healthcare group Windham Hospital notes that it may cause or aggravate lung conditions such as asthma and COPD.

Further warnings from state-led bodies add that burning, even outdoors, can expose you to carcinogenic compounds and contaminate food supplies.

This is because home burning, in particular, does not reach the heat levels found in commercial incineration, leading to incomplete combustion.

Incomplete combustion refers to a process in which fuel does not burn completely, leading to the formation of harmful byproducts, such as carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and other volatile chemicals.

The release of these pollutants during incomplete combustion poses significant risks to human health, particularly for vulnerable individuals with pre-existing conditions, the elderly, and young children. 

Moreover, as research explains, prolonged exposure to these pollutants can lead to problems, such as decreased lung function, increased susceptibility to infections, and even long-term chronic diseases.

5. Is Burning Cardboard Illegal?

While there is no overarching law across the US that explicitly prohibits burning cardboard, for the most part, each state has its own laws in place preventing any kind of waste burning.

To illustrate a few examples:

  1. North Carolina: According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, it is illegal to burn paper and cardboard, along with various other materials such as garbage, tires, building materials, plastics, and more. 

Violators can be fined up to $25,000 for illegal open burning.

  1. Washington: The Department of Ecology for the State of Washington states that burning garbage or construction debris, including paper, cardboard, and junk mail, is illegal. 

Individuals can face fines of up to $10,000 per day for illegal burning.

  1. California: The California Air Resources Board prohibits the burning of “disallowed combustibles,” which includes various waste materials such as petroleum products, paper, cardboard, construction debris, coated wire, plastics, rubber, garbage, and more.

Burning these materials for waste disposal outdoors at a residence is not allowed, with exceptions based on population density.

This means you cannot burn cardboard unless you live in an area with a population of less than or equal to 3 households per zip code.

These examples highlight the efforts by these states to regulate and control open burning, particularly of materials like cardboard, due to the potential environmental pollution, health risks, and adverse impacts on air quality. 

By restricting the burning of cardboard and other prohibited materials, these regulations aim to protect public health and minimize the release of pollutants into the atmosphere.

6. How to Dispose of Cardboard in an Eco-Friendly Way

To dispose of cardboard in an eco-friendly way, the NYC Department of Environmental Conservation recommends recycling.

Since 90% of shipped products in the US are packaged in cardboard, recycling is an important method to save on waste and reduce environmental pollution compared to producing new cardboard from trees. 

Most municipalities and businesses offer cardboard recycling programs. If your town or business doesn’t have recycling options, you can usually take cardboard to a recycling center.

While we mentioned earlier that other additives, dyes, and chemicals do also get reused in the recycling process, many of these are not an issue, provided that the cardboard is not burned or recycled improperly.

Moreover, corrugated cardboard made from recycled pulp consumes approximately 75% less energy compared to cardboard made from raw materials, helping to alleviate many of the negative factors of cardboard that does get burned, such as pollution and climate change.

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