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Don’t Forget Cardboard! Optimizing Recycling this Season & Year Round

December 21, 2018

The arrival of short days and cold weather means the holidays are rapidly approaching. Along with that comes presents from friends and loved ones. While we naturally think of the gifts themselves as precious, the boxes they come in also are valuable, for both their contributions to the economy and how they help us be environmentally responsible during this festive season.  In Massachusetts alone, more than 13,000 people work in the Commonwealth’s 2,000 recycling businesses, and individual contributions to recycling are critical to support those jobs and businesses.

Containerboard, the material used to make the cardboard boxes that online purchases arrive in, is widely recycled.  And, in fact, in many states cardboard recycling is mandated.  In 2017, 36 percent of all paper recovered for recycling was used to make the very cardboard boxes used to ship all of those holiday gifts. The recovery rate for cardboard boxes themselves is also consistently high, reaching almost 90 percent in 2017.[i].

New York has maintained one of the most successful recycling programs in the nation for close to three decades. Waste360 ranked New York the third best state in the nation for waste diversion and reduction. Sustaining that position as a recycling leader requires an on-going commitment by consumers, lawmakers and industry leaders to work together. Cardboard boxes are tailor-made for recycling; consumers can ensure they will be by making sure boxes are clean and dry before they are put in the recycling bin.

Recycling these boxes also feeds a global supply chain that uses recovered cardboard to manufacture new boxes and other products. Recent changes in the recovery and recycling marketplace mean consumers need to take extra care of this important material to realize its greatest benefit.  

As those boxes of holiday gifts pile up and you wonder whether to recycle them, it may be helpful to appreciate that cardboard can be recycled into new products – including new boxes - in the U.S., rather than having to export it.

In January of 2018, China adopted significantly more stringent quality standards for recycled materials than those used in the U.S. As a result, U.S. exports of recovered paper to China decreased by approximately 37 percent through the first nine months of this year compared to the same period in 2017. And that is forcing a closer look at how we approach recycling. For cardboard boxes it means making sure they don’t end up in recycling bins with materials that shouldn’t be there – for example food and liquids, plastic “pillows”, bubble wrap and Styrofoam, or mixed with garbage.  If they are, they can’t be recycled. The result: the boxes end up being thrown out rather than recycled into new products.

With just a little more care, you can ensure the cardboard boxes that hold their holiday presents also hold their value for recycling and keep the holiday season merry and environmentally responsible. Simple actions like breaking boxes down to take up less space in the bin, keeping food waste and garbage out of the recycling, and keeping them covered so they stay dry until pick-up day help ensure that the boxes are recycled into new products.

To help individuals “recycle right”, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection offers the Recycle Smart education campaign, an online source of resources and tools.  And the American Forest & Paper Association is working with other industry groups to increase recovery of cardboard boxes by promoting the use of carts instead of bins to accommodate more material and establishing clear language and graphics to help people better understand what can be recycled and how to do it.

The rapid growth in online shopping is increasing the use of cardboard boxes, which becomes most clear around the holidays. At the same time, an evolution in recycling requirements means consumers and communities need to be smarter about how they handle those boxes to keep them in the supply chain and out of landfills. Working together, we can enjoy the excitement of holiday gift giving while still being responsible stewards of our environment.

[i] Recovery & Use of Old Corrugated Containers (OCC). https://www.paperrecycles.org/statistics/recovery-use-of-old-corrugated-containers-(occ)

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