Recycling Cardboard

At a recent Keep Cocke County Beautiful board meeting, Director Tim Berkel told us that cardboard recycling is one of the most financially beneficial programs in the waste management arena.  So we thought we’d look at recycling cardboard this month to see how it’s done and what those old boxes become.

Recycling cardboard is so easy to do that it doesn’t make sense that some people won’t do it.  77% of cardboard is recycled, according to the EPA, so these hold outs are a minority!

There are two types of paper product accepted for recycling cardboard: one is the pasteboard used in packaging food and light-weight consumer products.  The other is corrugated cardboard used in shipping containers and packages for larger items like electronics and appliances. 

Preparation for Recycling Cardboard

Typically, no preparation is needed other than flattening the boxes to reduce their volume. If the container included a plastic bag or Styrofoam packing inside, you will want to remove those of course. Boxes that use punched cardboard panels to hold the item in place are fully recyclable. Staples, labels and tape may be left on; the recycling facility will remove those.

Grease soaked cardboard, like pizza boxes, cannot be recycled; please place those in with your trash. Sodden (really wet) cardboard will clog the cutters. Some facilities will not accept sodden cardboard, others will set it aside to dry first, check with your local waste management center for their rules on this.

Some recycling programs will recycle waxed cardboard (milk and juice cartons) others will not. Call your local waste management company to find out if they do, or call (800) CLEANUP for state recycling information.

No Cardboard Recycling Program?

If your community does not recycle cardboard, you can return boxes to grocery stores or large retail outlets. These almost always have a box baler and are selling the cardboard to a recycler.

Or you can seek out a recycling center and sell the cardboard yourself. However, these centers generally buy cardboard in bulk, and may not want to deal with people bringing in small amounts at a time.

Cardboard is also useful in mulching and compost. Being a paper product, it will eventually break down and enrich the soil, but can be used to prevent weeds and retain moisture in the meantime. If you have no such use, check with community gardens, floral farms or your local Ag Extension office to see where there may be a need.

How Does Recycling Cardboard Help?

The biggest advantage of recycling cardboard is the conservation of resources. Cardboard that is cut up and re-used in making new cardboard products reduces the need to cut trees to provide paper pulp. It also reduces the bulk of material being dumped into landfills. Every ton of recycled cardboard saves between three and nine cubic yards of landfill (depending on who you ask). Advocates also say that recycling cardboard saves 25% of the energy needed to make new cardboard. If your city or county is selling recyclables, that income helps keep your property taxes down as well.

What is made from Recycled Cardboard?


Paper mills can add shredded paper and cardboard as well as cotton fiber (from clothing) to their pulp wood content to make new paper. Cardboard is just heavy duty paper.

Pasteboard is commonly made by layering (or pasting) several layers of paper together to form a material stiff enough for light boxes. Corrugated cardboard requires at least three sheets of heavy paper, with the center layer rippled (corrugated) and glued to the outer layers to form material that is both stiff and shock absorbing. Ganging corrugated layers makes double or triple wall corrugated cardboard stiff enough to be used in crating applications for large, heavy items. But it’s still just paper!

Making Pulp

Businesses or recycling centers collect, sort and bale old cardboard containers, and send them to paper mills. The opened bales are shredded and go into a repulper, filled with water, which agitates the cardboard until it breaks down and forms a fiber slurry.

Contaminant Removal

A chain or rope hanging in the repulper catches many contaminants, such as strings or tape. The remaining pulp goes through other equipment where contaminants such as metal fall to the bottom, or lighter materials, such as plastic, float to the top for removal.

Making Paper

The cleaned pulp goes into a paper machine, where much of the remaining water drains off through a moving screen, forming a fiber mat. The mat moves between rollers that squeeze out more water, as well as heated cylinders, before it is dry enough to wind on large spools. Winding the paper into rolls for shipping to box manufacturers completes the recycling process.

More Info on Recycling Cardboard


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