Is Recycling Cardboard Worth It? All The Facts (Easily Explained)

Processing recycled materials may not be the magic ‘cure-all’ for our environmental woes. 

But it is a significant piece of the solution. 

80% of products purchased in the US and the EU are packaged in cardboard. The US alone throws away around 1 billion trees in cardboard per year. 

Yes. Recycling cardboard is worth it. 

The process is not without its imperfections but it’s still much better than doing nothing at all. 

Keep reading to find out why you should go to all the lengths necessary to recycle your cardboard. 

What Are the Benefits of Recycling Cardboard?

Cardboard is a paper product made from wood fibers that go through a pulping process. 

And it’s a perfect material for recycling. 

Here are 6 overwhelming reasons why you should make sure your cardboard goes in the recycling bin.

1. Conserve Forests

When we recycle cardboard we get long, strong paper fibers that can be used many times and made into more cardboard.

This reduces our need to cut down trees to make cardboard from raw materials. 

Recycling one ton of cardboard can save 17 trees.

2. Save Energy

Making cardboard from raw materials is a longer and more complicated process than making it from recycled cardboard.

When we make cardboard from wood, we waste more energy and resources. 

Recycling one ton of cardboard can save 4000 kW of electricity and 6.6 million Btu’s (British thermal units) of energy.

3. Reduce Pollution

When making cardboard from wood, you have to turn the wood into pulp.

This process creates a gas that causes acid rain, sulfur dioxide

When we recycle cardboard instead of using wood, we can cut the sulfur dioxide pollution by 50%.

4. Reduce Landfill

When you recycle your cardboard, it’s getting reused instead of going to a landfill. 

Landfills are toxic for the environment because they pollute water and air. 

Recycling one ton of cardboard can save 9 cubic yards of landfill space.

5. Reduce Greenhouse Gases

When cardboard is sent to landfills, it eventually breaks down and releases the greenhouse gas, methane. 

Methane absorbs the sun’s heat and warms the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

6. Save Water

The production process of making cardboard from wood requires a lot of water.

Whereas recycled cardboard has already been through that production stage.

You save approximately 7000 tons of water for every ton of cardboard you recycle.

Which Are the Disadvantages of Recycling Cardboard?  

Nothing is perfect and recycling cardboard is no exception. 

However, it’s important to emphasize that despite its shortcomings – recycling cardboard to produce new cardboard, is much more advantageous than making cardboard from raw materials.

1. Toxic Chemicals May Be Used in the Recycling Process

Recycling paper products is a multi-step process. 

One of the chemicals used during the process, surfactants, are known to have toxic effects on aquatic organisms

Many surfactants are biodegradable, and their quantity can be reduced below toxic levels when passed through secondary wastewater treatment plants. 

The concern is that irresponsible recycling facilities could be using toxic and non-biodegradable surfactant compounds instead of more environmentally friendly compounds. 

And if they improperly dispose of the water used in the cardboard recycling process, the polluted wastewater can have serious effects on entire ecosystems. 

This is an example of just one chemical used in the recycling process. And the chemical ingredients may vary from recycling center to recycling center. 

However, this isn’t a strong argument against recycling because making cardboard from raw materials is a process that uses even more chemicals.

In this case, it’s up to the recycling centers to use the eco-friendliest alternatives.

2.  Cardboard Is Easily Contaminated

Cardboard is easily contaminated, and once it’s contaminated, it can’t be recycled. 

If your cardboard has food residue, oils, lots of tape, foam peanuts, or plastic envelopes common to delivery labels – it’s probably going to end up in a landfill

Contaminated materials are expensive to sort and they can jam machines. 

If you have contaminated cardboard at home, you can cut off the clean pieces for recycling, but the contaminated portions are at the end of their life cycle. They must be put in the trash.

3. Recycled Cardboard Shouldn’t Be Used for Food Packaging

Paper and cardboard are “prone to absorbing chemicals”. 

When paper and cardboard are put into recycling they often contain bleach, ink, plasticizers, surfactants, and other chemicals from their original use.   

When these materials are recycled and made into a pulp, the ink, adhesives, bleach, etc. are passed into the recycled cardboard. 

One printing chemical found in inks is diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP). This is a dangerous chemical when ingested.

Therefore, recycled cardboard should not be used for food containers because it could be contaminated with phthalates. 

When hot take-out food is placed in one of these containers, it’s highly possible that phthalate chemicals can transfer to the food.

Is Cardboard Easy to Recycle?

Cardboard is generally easy to recycle. 

But there are a few cardboard recycling ‘rules’ you should follow:

1. Make sure boxes are empty. Take out any styrofoam, bubble wrap, or packing peanuts. 

2. Small amounts of tape are generally ok and can be removed at the recycling center. But you should remove excessive amounts of tape.

3. Remove plastic delivery labels and envelopes. 

4. Make sure your cardboard is clean before recycling it. If it has food residue, grease, or oil, it cannot be recycled. For example, pizza boxes are not recyclable.

However, you can cut the clean portions off of contaminated cardboard, and recycle the clean parts.  

5. Any wet cardboard has to dry before it can be recycled.

6. To save space, flatten cardboard boxes before putting them in your recycling bin. 

7. Don’t worry if the cardboard isn’t picture perfect. Ripped, bent, and damaged cardboard is ok for recycling. 

To ensure your cardboard is getting recycled instead of heading to a landfill, it’s important to contact your municipality or local recycling center. 

Requirements can change from facility to facility. 

For example, some facilities require you to break down boxes and some even ask you to tie your cardboard together to avoid the wind blowing it away. 

Is All Cardboard 100% Recyclable?

That depends on the kind of cardboard and your local recycling center. 

The Homewood Disposal Center in Homewood, Illinois says, “Yes! All cardboard is recyclable, send it to us!” 

Whereas many residential recycling centers don’t have the means to process mixed-material cardboard. 

What Are the Different Kinds of Cardboard?

1. Corrugated Cardboard

Corrugated cardboard is thick, layered, and durable. It’s often used in packing and shipping

This is the most commonly recycled cardboard, and you should have no problem recycling it at any recycling center as you follow the recycling ‘rules’ listed above.

2. Paperboard/Chipboard

This is the thin cardboard that you see for packaging non-frozen, non-liquid materials.

Examples include cake boxes, cereal boxes, gift boxes, soap boxes, toothpaste boxes, etc. 

This cardboard is recyclable.

But even though these boxes are so common (just look around the grocery store), they are not accepted by all recycling centers.

3. Coated Cardboard

Coated cardboard includes wax cardboard and plastic-lined cardboard.

These mixed-material cardboards have been strengthened by other materials to use for liquids and frozen produce. 

Ice cream containers and juice boxes are examples of coated cardboard. 

These are recyclable once cleaned and dried, but only by facilities that have the means to process them. 

Check all cardboard containers for the triangular recycling symbol and/or recycling instructions.

If you have doubts about what kind of cardboard your local facility takes, you can check their website or give them a call.

Is Recycling Cardboard Profitable? 

Recycling cardboard can be profitable. 

As an individual, you can contact your local recycling centers and ask if they pay for cardboard, especially corrugated cardboard boxes in good condition. The rates vary from center to center and from city to city. 

If you have a business, like a grocery store, and you use large amounts of cardboard, you could be profiting off your cardboard use.

The Whitaker Brothers, specialized in cardboard balers, suggest that businesses could save as much as $5,000 per year on waste pick up costs if you invest in a baler and sell your cardboard bales.

How Often Can Cardboard Be Recycled?

Paper products, including cardboard, can be recycled 5 to 7 times

Each time cardboard is recycled, its fibers become shorter, making it thinner and less durable.

At the end of its lifecycle, it can be made into a paper paste and used for newspapers and egg cartons.

What Products Does Cardboard Get Recycled Into?

Cardboard is recycled into paper bags, paper towels, tissues, and paper. 

It’s also made into more cardboard. It can be made into corrugated cardboard boxes for shipping and packing.

Or it can be made into thinner chipboard and used for boxes like cereal boxes.

Is It Expensive to Recycle Cardboard?

Yes, all recycling in the U.S., at least, has become expensive for cities and local governments.  

China used to import one half of the world’s recycling. But they were receiving tons of contaminated material.

So in 2018, China implemented ‘Operation National Sword’ and halted the importation of the world’s recycling. 

To learn more about this major shift in global recycling trade, watch the video below:

Communities used to sell recyclable materials to buyers who would then ship those materials to China for a profit.

Because this is no longer an option, communities have to pay processing plants to take their recycled materials.

That’s why many cities all over the U.S. have either stopped collecting recycling or have begun to charge for recycling pick up. 

The city of New York, for example, only made $12 per ton of paper products in 2019. This small earning isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of their general recycling collection – $686 per ton. 

Some recycled non-paper products earn New York no profit at all. In fact, they have to pay an additional cost of nearly $80 per ton to process them. 

The U.S. is currently in the process of recovering from China’s 2018 policies. New processing facilities are opening around the country in an attempt to make recycling profitable for U.S. cities once more.

How Much of All Our Cardboard Trash Gets Recycled?

According to the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency), 68.2% of discarded paper products, like cardboard, were recycled in 2018.

This dropped to 66.2% in 2019 (after China halted the importation of recyclable material in 2018).

Heidi Brock, President and CEO of the American Forest and Paper Association celebrates that the paper-based recycling rate has doubled since 1990. Brock says:

“More than twice as much paper is recycled than is sent to landfills. This is a testament to consumer behavior and an industry commitment to paper recycling.”

What Happens If I Don’t Recycle Cardboard?

If we don’t recycle, we are throwing our cardboard in the trash where it will go to landfills, there it contributes to water and air pollution.

If we don’t recycle cardboard, we are forced to make it from raw materials; wood. 

This means that we will cut down more trees and contribute to deforestation. 

Deforestation contributes to higher CO2 emissions, soil erosion, and the loss of biodiversity. 

The production of ‘virgin cardboard’ also uses far more water and chemicals than cardboard that has been previously processed.

By creating demand for “fresh” cardboard, we add to this waste. 

How Do I Dispose of Cardboard Properly? 

Rather than dispose of cardboard, you can break down boxes and store them for later use. 

You may have seen suggestions to use cardboard as mulch, a lining for garden beds, or as material for your compost pile.

However, these options should be avoided due to the possibility of your cardboard being chemically contaminated. 

If storage isn’t an option, you can use the previously mentioned recycling ‘rules’ to recycle it. 

But if you have cardboard that is not recyclable, like cardboard covered in food, oil, or grease, you can simply place it in your garbage for regular trash pick up.

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