DEEP: Corrugated Cardboard

Corrugated Cardboard Recycling

Old corrugated cardboard (OCC) represents a significant percentage of the commercial solid waste stream. In 1996, the U.S. generated 29 million tons of OCC (13.8% of the MSW generated). Approximately 90% of that comes from the commercial or non-residential sector. Studies have indicated that the amount generated varies with business type, size, activity, etc. and can represent 15% of the MSW generated in an office setting and as much as 40% or more in a retail establishment. OCC generation rates have been estimated as follows:

Business type and estimates of corrugated generated

Small convenience stores  700-1000 lbs./month
Grocery stores/supermarkets  8-30 + tons/month
Department stores  8-20 + tons/month
Hospitals  5 tons/month

By recycling your OCC, instead of discarding it you'll be: 

  1. conserving energy usage;

  2. reducing the production of green house gases;

  3. reducing the emissions of certain air pollutants such as hazardous air pollutants (HAP), Volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), and total reduced sulfur (TRS);

  4. conserving water use;

  5. conserving natural resources (it takes 3 tons of trees to produce one ton of virgin cardboard);

  6. saving money on refuse tipping fees and

  7. complying with Connecticut law. (Pursuant to 22a-241b of the Regulations of the Connecticut State Agencies, "cardboard" is a mandatory recyclable.)

The recycling of corrugated containers is easy and simple to implement. It involves: source separation from the refuse stream; preparation to minimize contamination and improve ease of handling; storage; and delivery to a paper processor or mill (see Fact Sheet on Waste Paper Recycling and Markets) to be recycled into various recycled paper products such as unbleached kraft paperboard, the center fluting of corrugated boxes, and recycled paperboard.

There are many possible methods for handling corrugated. At a minimum, storage facilities must be easily accessible to building maintenance personnel and haulers and must comply with fire codes. Corrugated boxes should be opened and flattened and contaminants removed before being placed in the storage container. A list of common contaminants is presented on the reverse side of this fact sheet. Remember, the cleaner the material, the more marketable it is.

Once the contaminants are removed, your system for handling the corrugated may be a simple as placing the loose flattened corrugated into a dumpster. Other options include manually bundling the corrugated, mechanically baling or compacting (large generators), or backhauling the loose corrugated to a central distribution center for baling or compacting (for stores that are part of a chain). You can really get innovative and perhaps come up with a plan for smaller businesses picking up merchandise at wholesalers to backhaul their corrugated there for compaction or baling.

To Bale Or Not To Bale

Small businesses, who generate only minimal amounts of corrugated, may find it more economical to manually bundle or store the loose corrugated in an appropriately sized container and have it collected either by a town or cooperatively contracted hauler, or a business may choose to use its own vehicles, and have the corrugated delivered to a private or municipal drop-off site.

For businesses generating larger quantities of corrugated the decision to simply use storage containers, or to bale or compact and the choice of bale size, should be made on a case by case basis. Generally speaking, both baling and compacting improve ease of handling, and by densifying the material reduce storage space requirements (one must also consider the size of the equipment when assessing the affect on storage requirements) and allow greater quantities of corrugated to be carried per haul, thus reducing hauling costs.

Compactors are usually more expensive than balers and usually require a lot more space than most balers. There is usually better quality control with balers than compactors, because more attention is paid to the materials being placed into the baler. However, many of the smaller balers and some of the more inexpensive larger balers do require hand tying of the bundles, and do have labor requirements, and possibly additional equipment requirements associated with their operation. Also if you do decide to use a baler, check the size of its chamber to assess the necessity of cutting the corrugated to make it fir into the baler. Baled corrugated is not necessarily worth more per ton than loose or compacted corrugated since bales smaller than "mill size" (at least 1,000 lbs.) must be broken open and rebaled by the paper processor. Also consider the equipment necessary to move mill size bales.

When making a decision, consider:

    • the relative labor requirements of the various methods
    • the quantity of corrugated generated
    • type and amount of available storage space
    • space requirements for the different types of storage/processing equipment comparative costs of renting or buying a baler, compactor, dumpster, or trailer
    • type of equipment needed to move the bales
    • hauling arrangements (including price per haul)
    • markets for the corrugated (i.e. paper processor or directly to a mill)
    • distance from a market, and
    • market value of the corrugated.

Contact your paper processor, hauler, or market to help you determine the system appropriate for your facility.

Remember by complying with Connecticut law and collecting clean OCC for recycling you will be saving natural resources, contributing to decreased pollution generation, and, if well planned, decreasing your business's trash disposal costs. A win-win situation all around.

Common Contaminants To Corrugated

Your paper processor or market (mill) will help you make the final determination regarding which materials are unacceptable, but the following is a typical list:

  • Packing material - such as polystyrene foam pellets
  • Excessive amounts of plastic tape or plastic packing envelopes (small amounts ok)
  • Wood stapled or otherwise attached to the box
  • Non-paper insulation layer between the layers of corrugated
  • Metal (generally, small numbers of staples do no have to be removed)
  • Wax or plastic coated corrugated (usually used to pack produce, usually darker and shinier than uncoated corrugated)
  • Other extraneous materials - materials stored in boxed, sweepings, etc.
  • Asian corrugated - is not acceptable for most recycling purpose at this time. You can distinguish Asian corrugated by its yellow/green tinge (usually used for products shipped from Asia). Check with your paper processor or market about the acceptability of this particular material.

Content Last Updated July 2001