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Monday, March 8, 2010

Adventures in Recycling (and Reusing) Cardboard

Just about everyday, there is a cardboard box awaiting "rescue" from the trash at my office. And every trash day in our little town, which is heavily populated by retail stores and restaurants, there are piles of cardboard at the curb waiting for the garbage trucks...not the recycling truck. In the United States, cardboard makes up about 41% of municipal waste. And according to one report, a whopping 90% of products that are shipped in, out and around the United States are packed in corrugated cardboard. Cardboard is everywhere. And way too much of it winds up in landfills where vast amounts of methane are generated as cardboard decomposes.

What can we do about that. The answer is in that environmental mantra "reduce, reuse and recycle."

How can we reduce the amount of cardboard we use? First, we can start encouraging retailers to use less of it when they pack and ship things. We can ask retailers to give us a choice of whether or not we want the items we buy packaged in lots of cardboard. When we buy a new appliance, we might ask the store to deliver without the box, or to take the box back.

Next, we should look for ways to reuse as much as we can. I take cardboard boxes to the local UPS store where they are reused by the store's customers. And I encourage my real estate clients who are planning a move to look for used boxes on Freecycle and Craig's List, rather than buying boxes. I also frequently offer my "rescued" boxes to people getting ready for a move. Boxes left over from a recent move can be posted on Freecycle and Craig's List as well. These boxes can be used over and over again, keeping them out of the landfill, and saving the reusers a bit of money.

Finally, if we can't reuse it, let's recycle it. My trash hauler started taking cardboard about a year ago. We are required to cut it up into pieces no larger than a pizza box. In the photo above, you can see my handy utility knife (it was a Christmas present from my husband who truly understands my recycling mania) that I use to cut up boxes that can't be reused.  It's really important that the cardboard isn't contaminated by food products (especially grease) and that it be dry. If cardboard gets wet and starts to decompose, it can't be recycled. Most recycling companies can handle the staples and bits of packing tape that are typically found on cardboard boxes. But they don't want styrofoam, plastic, wood or metal lingering in the boxes.

By the way, the boxes that cereal, pasta, paper clips and other products are packaged in isn't actually cardboard. This material is called paperboard which is also recyclable, though the recycling process is separate. You'll want to check with your recycler about separating materials. We are fortunate that we can co-mingle our recyclables. Waxed boxes like those used for orange juice or broth aren't usually accepted by most recyclers, but there are a few who can handle them.

I've learned a lot about cardboard as I've been researching for this post. The Recycle Guy, LLC had some particularly interesting facts. Did you know that recycling 1 ton of corrugated cardboard can :
     1. save 17 trees
     2. conserve 7000 gallons of water
     3. avoid the use of 46 gallons of oil
     4. save 9 cubic yards of landfill space

What do you do to reduce the use of cardboard or to reuse it? Please share.


  1. Here's the sad truth: though our trash collector "says" it recycles cardboard, often the guys on the truck don't understand that--and will leave my cardboard for the trash guys--or the trash guys will take it before the recycle truck gets here.

    I, too, will often take my boxes to the UPS store for reuse. Most recently I had kitchen cabinets delivered and had about a dozen large boxes that I tried to give away on Freecycle and Craigslist as moving boxes. Maybe it's a sign of the economy that no one is moving but I had NO TAKERS. This was the first time ever in my years of giving away moving boxes that no one expressed interest.

    So they are out with the recycling--though I did not know about having to reduce them in size so that the recycling guys can take them. Maybe that has been my problem all along.


  2. the key to curbside recycling for cardboard is cutting it down. they used to refuse mine too until I got my handy box cutter and now i cut it up into small pieces that easily fit into the bin. About the moving-size boxes, there is a local guy who ha started a business selling recycled moving boxes. He picks up boxes from your home or business. I'll try to get his info. What makes me so sad is all the cardboard that gets thrown out by the stores and restaurants in town. And technically, by ordinance, they are REQUIRED to recycle. But there are no teeth in the rules. thanks for stopping by.