We've been shopping up a storm during the pandemic, and research shows the number of cardboard boxes being thrown away is having a really negative effect on recycling facilities. Most of those boxes are ending up in the trash. It's why it's more important than ever to learn how to recycle cardboard the right way.
The Trouble with Cardboard at your Doorstep
Before the advent of online shopping, products were still sent in cardboard boxes. However, there would be dozens or hundreds of items in one large box, which would be unpacked and corrugated cardboard disposed of commercially. With online shopping, this model has flipped: boxes arrive on our doorsteps with layers of plastic and cardboard armour and are then tossed in municipal recycling systems.
Why is there so much packaging?
The average box is "dropped 17 times" according to the owner of ANAMA Package and Container Testing for online purchases. Excessive packaging with bubble wrap, air pocket packs, and boxes within boxes (within boxes) makes a lot more sense to protect the product but does not help the environment, municipalities, or consumers. City services are particularly overloaded: in New York 15 years ago, curbside recycling consisted of 15% cardboard. Today, it’s close to half of what sits on the curb.
Although corrugated cardboard can decompose or be recycled, it still takes energy to do so: "recycling 1 ton of cardboard is the energy equivalent to 104 gallons of gas." When it is a cardboard that goes through a municipal system, chances are that homeowners are recycling items that are dirty, greasy, or otherwise contaminated, making them unrecyclable. Additional energy costs of sorting contaminated items destined for the landfill from high-value items require staff and infrastructure.
In 2018, China, the world's largest purchaser of recyclables, stopped accepting 24 types of recycled materials. This completely changed the recycling landscape, meaning buyers in the market suddenly have their pick of what they wanted to purchase: the highest quality material.
The buyer’s market and excess of certain ‘recyclable’ materials have led to items like cardboard, plastic and glass being less attractive than materials like aluminum, meaning more end up in landfills. In a 3-part series on recycling in Canada by Global News, it was reported that “In Ontario alone, the average market price for mixed paper fell 110 percent from August 2017 to January 2019. The values of newspaper and cardboard dropped 50 percent each.”
Some plastics are so undervalued that recyclers have to PAY to dispose of them. For municipalities, this results in decisions between raising taxes and cutting the recycling program.
According to Earth 911:
- Making 1 ton of virgin cardboard requires 3 tons of trees,
- Recycling 1 ton of cardboard eliminates 9 cubic yards of landfill space.
Are there different types of cardboard?
There are two types of cardboard. Corrugated cardboard is what you are used to seeing on your doorstep, it's made up of a wavy inner layer that sits between the sheets. It's thick and very durable.
Paperboard or chipboard is only a single layer and is typically used in cereal and shoe boxes. It's not as thick and durable as corrugated cardboard. Both types are made from wood fibers that come from trees, recycling not only saves more trees from being cut down, it also reduces the amount of waste that is being sent to landfills.
How to recycle cardboard at home?
Focus on the first R of Zero Waste: Refuse! If you stop with online orders, you won’t have to deal with the excess. There are also many benefits to doing your own shopping! You get out of the house, could be sharing transportation, walking, biking, and most of all you can purchase multiple items in one trip rather than piecemeal deliveries in their own packaging.
Reduce! Focus on reducing your online purchases. For what you do buy, see if an alternative packaging option is possible, like Lime Loop.
Reuse packaging materials brought into your home. You might use them to store holiday ornaments or you can even look for free marketplaces to see if anyone who is moving might need them! You'd be surprised how many people might need these boxes. Another great idea is to use these boxes for eco-friendly gift wrapping.
Recycle correctly: Don’t contaminate recycling bins with unwashed or greasy items, and ensure that what you’re putting in the bin is indeed recyclable.
Rot: If you have a garden, use corrugated cardboard as mulch. It will decompose faster than if stacked and packed for a landfill. Of our course, you can compost it!
Before you place any cardboard in the blue bin, check with your local pick-up. Some waste management companies or municipalities require that you flatten and tie the boxes together. In some cases, you can leave the labels and tape on.
Last but definitely not least, when you hear "At least it’s recyclable", start a conversation about the bigger picture.
How to recycle cardboard for curbside pick up?
Step 1: Make sure all the plastic, extra boxes, etc. have been removed from the box. Break down the box and flatten it. You will have to do this with all the boxes.
Step 2: Stack the boxes next to the blue bin for pick up, if it rains you will need to bring them in. As mentioned earlier wet cardboard will not be picked up.
The City of Toronto has this advice for residents:
"Extra cardboard should be cut into small pieces, flattened, and bundled with string or twine. Ensure pieces can fit back into the recycling bin."
How to recycle large amounts of cardboard?
If you have a massive amount of super large boxes you might need to look for a private company. Check out RecycleNation’s Recycle Search tool.
Are there times you should not recycle your cardboard?
Again the rules are different depending on where you live and the services that are available to you. If you have a dirty pizza box, it can't be recycled. You can only recycle the clean, dry parts, so you might have to cut the box up. The greasy, soiled parts can be composted.
Some cardboard boxes are coated with wax, like juice boxes or milk cartons. In this case, they are not always recyclable. So check! And, cardboard should never go in the blue bin when it's wet. The bottom line is if you can't recycle it, you need to reuse it!
What can cardboard be recycled into?
When recycled, cardboard is used to make chipboard like cereal boxes, paperboard, paper towels, tissues and printing or writing paper. It's also made into more corrugated cardboard.
Final thoughts on how to recycle cardboard
The recycling landscape is changing constantly, and there are some positive developments. Recycle BC is a municipal recycling non-profit, but most uniquely has 1300 businesses behind it. The businesses include Apple Canada, Loblaws, and many others, regulated by the province and use a model called ‘extended producer responsibility'.
Online shopping giant Amazon also has a program for ‘frustration-free packaging’ that hinges on convenience but also cuts down on excess. Their page, updated in 2017, boasts having avoided “eliminated 215,000 tons of packaging material and avoided 360 million shipping boxes.” But does it cut enough to balance the rapidly growing sector of online sales?
In our consumer-driven society, your consumption matters. The fact is, if you’re minimizing your online shopping, your personal contribution to the cardboard and packaging problem will be lessened.
We've got a bunch of recycling guides here on The Eco Hub to help you get rid of your stuff properly:
What are you trying to get rid of? Tell me in the comments. I'd love to help.
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