How to Recycle Cardboard

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 06, 2023

Cardboard is a common staple of everyday life. Over 90% of products in the United States are shipped in cardboard boxes.

Many products — like toothpaste, cereal, and shoes — come in cardboard boxes. Luckily, recycling cardboard is a great option for most Americans.

What Is Cardboard Made of?

Cardboard is a paper product. Both corrugated cardboard — the kind used in packing boxes — and paper board — the kind used for cereal boxes — are made from wood pulp.

Wood pulp is a versatile raw material that comes from trees. Trees are fibrous, and to make wood pulp, these fibrous parts must be broken down by feeding wood chips into machines called pulp digesters. Inside the machine, high heat — usually in the form of steam — and a chemical mixture dissolve the polymers that bind the fibers together.

Next, the factory filters out any waste or unnecessary elements. The wood pulp is washed and sometimes bleached. Next, it’s pressed into its final form and allowed to dry.

Wood pulp is used to make some of your everyday paper and paper products like envelopes, napkins, tissues, and receipts. It’s also used to make:

  • Air filters
  • Diapers
  • Handbags
  • LCD screens
  • Labels and stickers
  • Food casings
  • Shoes
  • Stickers

Corrugated cardboard takes a few extra steps to make. Though both are made of cardboard, a shipping box is usually thicker and sturdier than a cereal box. That’s because shipping boxes are made of multiple layers of cardboard glued together. These multiple layers make the boxes strong and well-insulated while keeping them lightweight. 

Most corrugated cardboard boxes have three layers: a fluted — or “wavy” — layer sandwiched between two smooth, rigid layers. This allows the box to tolerate a lot of pressure.

Is Cardboard Bad for the Environment?

Any manufactured product is going to impact the environment negatively. In most cases, manufacturing uses or creates chemicals that can harm the planet. Cardboard manufacture is no exception.

The pulp and paper industry is the fifth largest consumer of energy — responsible for 4% of the world’s energy use. The United States is one of the worst consumers of paper products — despite making up only 5% of the world’s population, Americans use up to 30% of the global paper supply.

Aside from using up energy, wood pulp production releases sulfur dioxide as a byproduct. Sulfur dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and while it can sometimes come from natural sources, like volcanoes, most of the sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere comes from human sources.

When sulfur dioxide gets into the atmosphere, it can fall to the ground in acid rain, damaging ecosystems. Sulfur dioxide in the air can also lead to health problems in humans, especially problems related to breathing.

Another major problem with the paper and cardboard industry is deforestation — the mass, permanent removal of forests. Deforestation can have a devastating impact on the environment.

Deforestation has been found to cause:

  • An increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. Plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide and give out oxygen, helping to keep the air clean. Removing forests means removing a natural air purifier.
  • Flooding and soil erosion. Trees help the soil retain water, reducing erosion. Removing trees damages the soil, which can impact all nearby plants.
  • Habitat loss. All sorts of critters rely on trees and forests for shelter and food. About 70% of land animals and plants live in forests, and removing these forests exposes them to danger.
  • A reduction in atmospheric water levels. Trees help regulate the water cycle. Without trees, there’s less management of the water levels in the air. When these levels drop, the soil dries out and crops can’t grow.

Fortunately, cardboard, especially corrugated cardboard, can be easily manufactured from recycled materials. Corrugated cardboard made from recycled materials only uses about 75% of the energy as making it from new materials. Additionally, most of the trimmings from making these boxes can be recycled.

Can You Recycle Cardboard?

Not only is cardboard recyclable, but it’s also the most recycled paper product. About 70% of all corrugated cardboard in the United States is recovered for recycling and used to make products like printing and writing paper, paper towels, and tissues.

Recycling cardboard into new products only creates half the pollution that would be created if those products were made new. Almost no ozone-depleting chemicals are used when the cardboard is recycled. It also needs fewer heavy metals. Currently, cardboard is the most environmentally friendly it’s ever been.

Unfortunately, not every piece of cardboard can be recycled.

Can you recycle cardboard with food on it? Whether you can recycle cardboard with food on depends on the food and how much there is. A few crumbs can be brushed off, but you can’t recycle cardboard with food stuck to it. 

Some recycling centers may not be able to take cardboard with grease stains, like what you might find on pizza boxes. Check the rules of your local recycling center. If it’s not recyclable, you may still be able to compost it.

Can you recycle cardboard with tape on it? Cardboard, especially that used for shipping and packing, often has tape stuck to it, and peeling this tape off can be a pain. Luckily, you can still recycle cardboard with tape on it. Cardboard with staples is generally accepted as well.

Can you recycle coated cardboard? The kind of coating decides whether the cardboard can be recycled. Glossy or shiny cardboard, like what you might see on a cereal box or toothpaste box, is fine. However, most places cannot take cardboard with a wax coating.

How To Recycle Cardboard

Recycling cardboard is easy and requires only a few steps:

  1. Scrape off any food residue from cardboard from a food container. Find out whether your local recycling company takes cardboard with grease stains. 
  2. Flatten the cardboard.
  3. Add it to your recycling bin or bring it to a nearby recycling center.

Once the cardboard reaches it, the recycling center will sort it by type and then turn the cardboard back into pulp. It’ll then filter out any ink and mix it with fresh pulp so that the pulp can be used again.

Show Sources

American Forest & Paper Association: “Pulp.”
Engines of Our Ingenuity: “No. 2848: CORRUGATED CARDBOARD.”
Environmental Protection Agency: “10.2 Chemical Wood Pulping,” “Identifying Greener Paper,” “How Do I Recycle?: Common Recyclables,” “Sulfur Dioxide Basics.”
Harvard School of Public Health: “Recycling: Paper & Cardboard FAQ’s.”
Idaho Forest Products: “HOW PAPER IS MADE.”
Less Is More: “Cardboard Recycling.”
Minneapolis: “Accepted recycling.”
Muncie Sanitary District: “Cardboard Recycling.”
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: “Cardboard.”
Pachamama Alliance: “Effects of Deforestation.”

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