how to recycle cardboard boxes

Americans use 100 billion cardboard boxes every year, but the good news is that this material is highly recyclable. In fact, we now recycle more than 90% of our cardboard boxes.

However, as with recycling anything, it’s important to know how to recycle cardboard boxes to ensure your old cartons are recycled properly and don’t end up in landfill.

How can I recycle my cardboard boxes?

If you want to live a zero-waste lifestyle, cutting out plastic and styrofoam and switching to cardboard boxes is a good start. There are many ways to recycle and reuse old cardboard boxes.

Take them to a recycling centers

The first step is to see if your town’s recycling program accepts cardboard boxes. If not, you can take your old boxes to a local recycling center.

You can use the product care recycling locator to find recycling centers in your area that accept specific materials.

However, it’s important to know that not all cardboard is recyclable, particularly food packaging. Any kind of waxed or coated cardboard is usually not recyclable, though some recycling centers take materials that others do not.

empty pizza boxes on a picnic blanket
Pizza boxes are often coated with grease which makes them hard to recycle as these can contaminate other clean items.

Always be sure to check with your local authority or recycling center about what types of cardboard they accept. It’s also important to prepare the boxes for recycling, and we’ll look at that next.

How to prepare cardboard boxes for recycling

As with recycling any type of material, it’s important to prepare your cardboard boxes properly before sending them off for recycling. Check each box and remove any plastic, staples, or other packaging material.

You’ll also need to remove the tape with a knife or scissors and flatten out the boxes. Finally, take any labels off.

cardboard boxes flattened and stored for recycling
Flattened boxes take less space and are easier to transport

You also need to remove any cardboard that are been wet or contaminated.

Saturated cardboard can’t be recycled, such as pizza boxes coated with grease and oil. It’s best to sort it into wet and dry cardboard and take only solid, dry boxes to the recycling center.

Store your boxes in a dry place

Once you have collected, prepped, and flattened your cardboard boxes, you’ll need to keep them in good condition until your town’s recycling program picks them up, or you can take them to a recycling center.

It’s essential to store them in a clean, dry spot, as wet or contaminated cardboard can’t be recycled.

Reuse the cardboard

Another option is to reuse or repurpose your old cardboard boxes, either in their original form or by breaking them down first.

car toy made of cardboard
Cardboard is a great eco-friendly material to make toys for kids

Some creative ways to reuse your old cardboard boxes include:

  • Floor coverings – Open up and flatten the box and use it to cover your floors while you’re painting the walls and ceiling, or staining a piece of furniture. This is a great way to repurpose bigger boxes, which do a great job of protecting your floors from stains.
  • Stylish home storage – Cover cardboard boxes fabric and decorate them. These make great home organizers for storing anything from clothing and accessories to office documents, toys, or kitchen supplies.
  • Makeshift toys -Give them to your kids to make forts, playhouses, cars, or spaceships – they’ll only be limited by their imagination!
  • Household item DIYs – Use them to make handy household items – check out this cool shoe rack made from old cardboard boxes, for example.

How is cardboard recycled?

Once you drop your cardboard boxes off at the recycling center, what happens next? Let’s take a look at how exactly cardboard is recycled.

Step 1: Sort and shred

The first thing a recycling center does is sort the cardboard boxes by category. Cardboard boxes come in two types – corrugated with multiple sheets, and boxboards, with a single layer of cardboard.

Once the boxes are sorted, they are shredded into smaller pieces for further processing.

Step 2: Mix with water

The recycling center will then shred the cardboard boxes that can be recycled. The shredded cardboard then goes into a huge container, and water is added to create a mixture.

The goal is to make cardboard soft enough to be broken down into fine pieces that are used for manufacturing new cardboard.

Step 3: Filter the pulp

Even though people remove the tape and staples before bringing the cardboard into a recycling facility, there’s nearly always bits of plastic or packaging left in the boxes. Magnets can help to remove metal pieces, but only smaller ones.

Recycling experts use centrifugal systems to remove foreign objects from the cardboard pulp. This filtering process is essential before the mixture can be used for manufacturing.

Step 4: Improve the consistency

To improve the consistency of the pulp, more liquid is added to the solution, and the mixture is stirred thoroughly to form a paste.

How much water is added to the mixture depends on the type of cardboard being manufactured. At the same time, chemicals are added to the solution to give it water-resistant properties.

Step 5: Dry the mixture

The paste contains a large amount of water, so it’s then dried off using steam heating or vacuum rollers. The recycling plant uses rollers to add more layers to the mixture, creating thick cardboard sheets.

This results in cardboard that can be used to make more boxes or other items. The process can vary depending on the recycling plant, but the basic processes are usually the same.

Are all cardboard boxes recyclable?

Although most types of cardboard boxes are easily recyclable, some cannot be recycled at all. For example, gift boxes often contain glitter, plastic, or paint, making them unsuitable for the above recycling process.

Product packaging can also be tricky, as it may have cellophane windows or contain other non-recyclable materials. Food packaging is different entirely, as it is often waxed or coated, which also means you can’t recycle it.

Even if it is not, this kind of packaging is often soaked in grease, oil or other foodstuffs, making it impossible to recycle. In fact, trying to recycle material like this can contaminate the entire recycling load.

RecyclableNot usually recyclable
Paperboard boxesMost food packaging
Fiberboard boxesWaxed or coated boxes, or boxes with a plastic film that can’t be removed
Cardboard tubesGift boxes that are covered in glitter, paint, or plastic
Any clean, dry, and uncoated cardboard box with tape, staples, and labels removedCardboard that is wet, contaminated, or with soaked-in grease

Ready, Set, Recycle!

While not all cardboard boxes are recyclable, most can be recycled so long as they are in good condition. Just make sure to prep them properly by removing any tape, labels, and staples.

For more on how to recycle your household items, take a look at recycling shredded paper, Amazon packaging and milk cartons.

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