Is Cardboard Overloading the Recycling Industry?

There is a phrase that has become a signature of the holidays. No, it’s not “Happy Holidays”, nor a cheery “Season’s Greetings”. The phrase I keep hearing is, “At least it’s recyclable.”

However, “recyclable” is different than “it’s going to be recycled”- particularly for the cardboard waste associated with online shopping, Is Cardboard Overloading the Recycling Industry?

The Trouble with Cardboard at your Doorstep

Before the advent of online shopping, products were still sent in cardboard boxes. However, there would be dozens or hundreds of items in one large box, which would be unpacked and corrugated cardboard disposed of commercially. With online shopping, this model has flipped: boxes arrive on our doorsteps with layers of plastic and cardboard armour and then tossed in municipal recycling systems.

Why so much packaging?

For online purchases, the average box is “dropped 17 times” according to the owner of ANAMA Package and Container Testing. Excessive packaging with bubble wrap, air pocket packs and boxes within boxes (within boxes), make a lot more sense to protect the product- but do not help the environment, municipalities, or consumers. City services are particularly overloaded: in New York 15 years ago, curbside recycling consisted of 15% cardboard. Today, it’s close to half of what sits on the curb.

Although corrugated cardboard can decompose or be recycled, it still takes energy to do so: “recycling 1 ton of cardboard is the energy equivalent to 104 gallons of gas.” When it is a cardboard that goes through a municipal system, chances are that homeowners are recycling items that are dirty, greasy, or otherwise contaminated, making it unrecyclable. Additional energy costs of sorting contaminated items destined for the landfill from high-value items require staff and infrastructure.

Related post: How Waste Reduction Week Supports a Circular Economy

Recycling is a Service, but also a Business

In 2018, China, the world’s largest purchaser of recyclables, stopped accepting 24 types of recycled materials. This completely changed the recycling landscape, meaning buyers in the market suddenly have their pick of what they wanted to purchase: the highest quality material.

3 stacks of Cardboard boxes

The buyer’s market and excess of certain ‘recyclable’ materials have led to items like cardboard, plastic and glass being less attractive than materials like aluminum, meaning more end up in landfills. In a 3-part series on recycling in Canada by Global News, it was reported that  “In Ontario alone, the average market price for mixed paper fell 110 percent from August 2017 to January 2019. The values of newspaper and cardboard dropped 50 percent each.” Some plastics are so undervalued that recyclers have to PAY in order to dispose of them. For municipalities, this results in decisions between raising taxes and cutting the recycling program.

Related post: The World’s First Ethically Traded Plastic

Changing the Recycling Cycle

The recycling landscape is changing constantly, and there are some positive developments. Recycle BC is a municipal recycling non-profit, but most uniquely has 1300 businesses behind it. The businesses include Apple Canada, Loblaws, and many others, regulated by the province and uses a model called ‘extended producer responsibility’.

Online shopping giant Amazon also has a program for ‘frustration-free packaging’ that hinges on convenience but also cuts down on excess. Their page, updated in 2017, boasts having avoided  “eliminated 215,000 tons of packaging material and avoided 360 million shipping boxes.” But does it cut enough to balance the rapidly growing sector of online sales?

In our consumer-driven society, your consumption matters. The fact is, if you’re minimizing your online shopping, your personal contribution to the cardboard and packaging problem will be lessened.

Here are a few ideas to manage cardboard at your doorstep:

Focus on the first R of Zero Waste: Refuse! If you stop with online orders, you won’t have to deal with the excess. There are also many benefits to doing your own shopping! You get out of the house, could be sharing transportation, walking, biking, and -most of all- you can purchase multiple items in one trip rather than piecemeal deliveries in their own packaging.
Reduce! Focus on reducing your online purchases.  For what you do buy, see if an alternative packaging option is possible, like Lime Loop
Reuse packaging materials brought into your home.
Recycle correctly: Don’t contaminate recycling bins with unwashed or greasy items, and ensure that what you’re putting in the bin is indeed recyclable.
Rot: If you have a garden, use corrugated cardboard as mulch. It will decompose faster than if stacked and packed for a landfill.

Last but definitely not least, when you hear “At least it’s recyclable,” start a conversation about the bigger picture.

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  1. Jeffrey Arnold
    January 10, 2020
    • Candice Batista
      January 11, 2020

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