Is cardboard biodegradable? How does cardboard packaging affect the environment? Read on to uncover all this and more.
For as long as I can remember, cardboard has been the most common packaging material. And while my memories are limited to just a few decades back, the use of this classic brown packaging started around 1890 in Scotland. In America, companies started using corrugated boxes for packaging around 1895.
Or is it another non-biodegradable mess that has been polluting our environment for over a century?
Well, no need to worry! The fact is, cardboard is biodegradable.
But is it environmentally friendly? And is it recyclable?
I’m sure there are a dozen things you don’t know about this centuries-old invention.
In this piece, I’ll explore with you everything there is to know about cardboard to determine whether it’s the best packaging material for our environment.
Table of Contents
Top Facts about Cardboard
Is Cardboard Biodegradable?
Generally, cardboard is created from trees. It also requires water and air during the manufacturing process. The use of natural materials makes cardboards 100% biodegradable.
This means that when the cardboard is exposed to bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms, it will degrade naturally without the need for additional artificial catalysts. This is unlike other materials like plastic or glass.
Biodegradation means that the material breaks down naturally into water, CO2, and biomass. This way, the material is absorbed back into the environment without causing any damage to the environment or its inhabitants.
But is all cardboard biodegradable? Not really! If the cardboard is plastic-lined or waxed, it won’t biodegrade. This is because plastic and wax are non-biodegradable and require additional materials to break them down.
Cardboard has been in use for over 100 years now. Companies have been using cardboard boxes to package and ship products for the longest time.
One thing that made cardboard so popular is that it’s lightweight and less bulky. It consumes less space, making it an efficient mode of packaging and distribution. Being lightweight also means it is easier to transport than other heavier materials like glass jars or metal packaging.
Over the years, cardboard has become more than just a source of packaging material. It is now being used to create many other products, including banners, real estate signs, etc.
Types of Cardboard
Typically, we have two types of cardboard. These are the corrugated cardboard and the paperboard/chipboard.
Corrugated cardboard is thick cardboard containing three layers. It includes two outer sheets, with another wavy fiber in between the two. The wavy layer adds sturdiness to the cardboard, making it ideal for packing boxes used in products shipping.
On the other hand, paperboard is the product of recycled corrugated cardboard. After you recycle the corrugated cardboard, its fibers become shorter and shorter. Consequently, every time we recycle cardboard, the end product is slightly thinner.
Since the thin fibers can’t create strong and sturdy cardboard, the better option is to make paperboard boxes. These ones are common in supermarkets and retail shops as they package things like cereals, cakes, small electronics, medicine, etc.
So, is paper and cardboard biodegradable? Certainly Yes! Both cardboard and paper are biodegradable. However, the time it takes for each to biodegrade completely varies due to thickness and size.
Is Cardboard Recyclable?
Absolutely Yes! Cardboard and its products are 100% recyclable. This means that you can use the old cardboard boxes to create new products without cutting down more trees.
Recycling is an important process when it comes to environmental protection. First, if you recycle, it means that less new cardboard is being manufactured. Consequently, you reduce the amount of litter in the environment and the number of trees being cut down.
Additionally, since less production is taking place, there is less fuel use, which translates to fewer greenhouse gases reaching the environment.
Recycling cardboard is simple. All you need to do is to flatten or fold it to fit in the recycle bin. The local waste management will handle the rest.
- Keep the boxes clean and dry. Stained or wet cardboard is not ideal for recycling. Let it dry before its put into the recycling bin.
- Remove any other material that can’t be recycled
- Don’t mind the dented boxes. They are also recyclable.
- Stickers and other labels on the boxes will be dealt with during recycling, so no need to remove them.
- Separate cardboard from other recyclable materials, including paper. Cardboard recycling process is somewhat different from the rest.
While I mentioned earlier that plastic-lined cardboard isn’t biodegradable, when it comes to recycling, it is 100% recyclable. The process of recycling plastic-lined cardboard is similar to that of natural cardboard.
However, soiled and waxed cardboard is not recyclable. Therefore, don’t include this in your recyclable cardboard batch. These boxes contain food, oils, and wax, which won’t mix with water in the recycling process.
You can usually recycle cardboard up to 7 times. It can be turned into paperboards, tissues, cereal boxes, etc. However, after this, these cardboard products can only be recycled into newspapers, paper paste etc., since the fibers will have become too short to create any other hardy products.
By now, I’m sure you’ve realized that not all cardboard is recyclable. Around 81% of all corrugated cardboard goes for recycling, regardless of shape, size, or color. However, the remaining percentage is not ideal for recycling.
Corrugated cardboard that cannot be recycled includes:
- Wax-coated cardboard
- Those soiled with oil, food, blood, paint, and other organic materials
- Those permanently lined with non-paper liners
Mainly, these types of cardboard are not recyclable as they contain elements that might affect the recycling process. Such elements don’t mix with water, thus affecting the proper recycling process.
Is Cardboard Compostable?
Just like with biodegradation, cardboard is also compostable. As stated earlier, cardboard is made from trees (organic materials) plus water and air.
Trees being an organic material, they are easily broken down by bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. For this reason, cardboard becomes an ideal candidate for composting.
However, not all cardboard is compostable. Those that are plastic-lined cannot naturally decompose as plastic is non-biodegradable. The cardboard might break down, but the plastic lining remains intact.
For the non-compostable cardboard, you should try recycling it if it meets the recycling requirements.
Composting cardboard isn’t hard.
If you wish to compost cardboard boxes, follow these simple steps:
- Create or buy a compost bin
- Create a compost pile, (4 inch), with layers of shredded cardboard, together with several other carbon-rich materials such as old hay, lead leaves, or straw.
- Add another 4-inch layer of materials rich in nitrogen like animal manure, vegetables, fruit peals etc.
- Put another 2-inch layer of soil to your compost pile.
- Repeat these steps until you have around 4 cubic feet of compost pile.
- After this, add water to your pile to keep it moist.
- Keep turning your compost (every 5 days) for around 6-8 months.
- Your compost is now ready and you can use it for your backyard garden or flower bed.
Unlike in recycling, soiled and waxed cardboard is compostable. This includes pizza boxes and other food packaging boxes that are contaminated with food and oils.
In composting, the conditions are quite enhanced for decompositions, especially if you strictly follow the steps.
In essence, composting is a human-enhanced biodegradation process. But, here you get compost, which can be quite helpful in naturally improving the health of plants in your garden.
If you want to learn more details on composting, you can read our Biodegradable vs Compostable materials article.
Is Cardboard Eco-friendly
When we started this article, this was one of the major concerns we stated.
And, the answer to this question is a definitive Yes!
Cardboard is eco-friendly and rarely harms the environment – unless it’s the plastic-coated ones that don’t biodegrade and might contain harmful elements.
The main reasons why cardboard is considered eco-friendly are that it is biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable. These three factors mean that cardboard doesn’t leave destructive trails on the environment.
For instance, if the material is biodegradable, it means that after its useful life, it degrades and combines back with nature. This way, no harm is caused to the environment.
On the other hand, compostable materials are even better. It means that they are biodegradable, and the resulting compost can be useful in improving our farms. Composting reduces the use of artificial fertilizers, which in most cases, pollute our waterways.
Lastly, recycling reduces the number of new products needed. Less manufacturing means that fewer greenhouse gases will end up in our atmosphere. Also, fewer raw materials will be required, meaning fewer trees will be cut down.
In the US, cardboard is the 2nd most recycled material. This makes that it’s one of the most environmental-friendly packaging materials we have globally. The fact that it can also be recycled several times (up to 7 times) means that it will take time before falling down more trees.
Cardboard contains zero toxic elements that might harm the environment and its inhabitants. Even if animals consume cardboard remains, it can’t harm them or even harm us when we consume the animals. Therefore, if we wish to protect the environment, cardboard packaging is the way to go.
Why do People Still Prefer Plastic Packaging?
Despite the numerous dangers that plastic poses to the environment, plastic packaging is still widely used instead of only using cardboard that is biodegradable.
So why is this?
Well, it’s true that plastic isn’t eco-friendly as it doesn’t biodegrade and might harm the environment. However, plastic packaging also has its pros.
Some of the most common advantages of plastic packaging include:
- Strong packaging: plastic is sturdy and can protect the products from moisture, humidity, light, gases, insects, and even microorganisms.
- Preservation: plastic helps to preserve products for long, reducing the amount of products going to waste.
- Maintains hygiene: since its impenetrable by water, gases, light, and microorganisms, it helps to keep the products clean and hygienic.
- Prevents spillage: plastic-sealed packages prevent the products from spilling and causing wastage and losses.
- Safe transportation: it’s easier to transport products in plastic packaging as it protects the products from damages. This allows safe long distance transportation.
- Easier to display information: with plastic packaging, it’s pretty easy to add crucial information about the product on the packaging.
Generally, plastic offers shatter-free packaging that is also hygienic, lightweight, and durable. These aspects of the material make it a good packaging material.