It’s easy to recycle cardboard and paper, but people don’t always understand the process. When you recycle paper, what happens to it?
Tossing empty boxes, cereal boxes, greeting cards, egg cartons, mail, and printer paper into a curbside bin takes little time. Bills that have confidential information are often shredded first by the resident. The shredded forms and documents are contained in a bag and tossed into the recycling bin as a whole.
Is it that easy? Not really. Cardboard that has stuck-on food or grease stains is not recyclable. You could cut out the greasy, food-covered part and recycle the rest if you want to be proactive and help out. You also cannot recycle cardboard or paper covered in glitter, dirt, or paint. If you can’t remove it quickly, put it in the trash. Plastic windows on envelopes, plastic packaging tape, and plastic inserts (like a sample credit card) must be removed and disposed of properly.
Despite these standard rules, many people recycle them anyway. It creates contamination within the recycling stream. To understand why it’s a problem, take a look at this step-by-step guide into cardboard and paper recycling.
How Cardboard and Paper Are Recycled and Processed
Why should people recycle paper and cardboard? The answer is simple. It takes several tons of trees to make one ton of new cardboard, providing the cardboard contains no recycled materials. Recycled cardboard and paper help save the forests by reducing the need for raw materials.
It takes several steps to turn recycled boxes and papers into the new paper stock. These steps all start with consumers knowing how to recycle correctly.
Step 1: Curbside or Drop-Off Recycling
The first step starts with you. You place your unneeded boxes and papers into a curbside container or bring them to a drop-off recycling center. How you do that depends on your jurisdiction. Some places use zero-sort techniques. Others require you to sort paper and cardboard from metal, glass, and plastic.
Before you put something in a recycling bin, check your local district’s rules. Some facilities take pizza boxes that have grease stains, but many others don’t. Your local recycling facility may take paper milk or juice cartons, but others do not take anything with a wax or plastic liner or coating. You might be able to recycle shredded paper, but it may have to go into a clear trash or kitchen bag for easy identification.
Do not put wet paper or cardboard into your recycling bin. If it’s wet, it can jam up the automated sorting machines that many districts use. That ends up costing more money in equipment downtime and staffing to get maintenance workers to get lines working again. Wet paper and cardboard can also become moldy, contaminating all of the other items you’re recycling with that cardboard. Throw any damp cardboard and paper into the trash. Or, consider tearing it up and compost it in your home compost pile.
If you follow your district’s rules, you save time and effort in later steps, which keeps the cost of recycling down. Lowered costs as a whole mean lower tax rates or cheaper monthly curbside trash/recycling hauling. It’s a good idea to check your district’s guide to recyclables each year as markets and regulations fluctuate. Some items that were easy to recycle become much more challenging to process.
Step 2: Sorting
At the recycling facility, the cardboard items and papers get sorted. If your hauler requires you to put metal, plastic, glass, and paper items into one recycling bin, the first step of paper recycling involves removing the glass, plastic, and metal items. Sorting of recyclables may be done by hand or by machines that use a series of conveyor belts, fans, and gravity to help sort one material from others.
As paper and cardboard get separated from the other items, the facility may further sort corrugated cardboard to go into one bin. Boxboard, printer paper, mail, and magazines go into a different container. They’ll go to a cardboard baler to make the stacks of boxes easier to handle and move around from one facility to the next. Paper processing companies purchase the bales of recycled paper to use in their plant.
Some people throw cardboard items that aren’t recyclable into their recycling bins anyway. Things like wax-coated boxes for frozen foods are not recyclable. Hand removal of those items takes place. The contaminating materials go into trash trucks that travel to the landfill. The extra trip to the landfill and the need for additional staff to watch for issues like that drive up costs and make curbside hauling more expensive for taxpayers and residents.
Step 3: Soaking/Pulping
Once the cardboard and paper are sorted and baled, they travel to a paper processing plant. The first step is to deposit bales into chemical water baths that break up the fibers in the paper products that you’ve recycled. Inks from the paper items get removed in this step. The resulting pulp will be a natural color that’s ready to move to the paper-making process.
Companies may add new wood fibers to the mix to help add strength to the latest creations. The items are soaked and mixed to help break up the fibers that will go into new boxes or rolls of paper for newspapers, magazines, etc.
Step 4: Cleaning, Screening, and De-Inking
Not everyone thinks to remove plastic windows, glue, staples, or packaging tape in or on the boxes and mail they receive. The paper pulp goes through screens and removes those items. They’re disposed of in the correct place, whether it’s a metal recycling bin or a landfill.
At this point, the pulp is still a mix of water and pulp. Added dyes are a final step if the paper needs to be a specific color.
Step 5: Paper Making Machine
Pumps spray the pulp onto a screened conveyor belt where the screen holds the pulp but allows water to start draining away. The screened conveyor goes through paper presses to help push out any remaining moisture. Once that process finishes, the paper travels over hot rollers to dry before it goes onto rolls. If even slightly damp, the paper forms mildew and mold. Paper rolls may get cut down to make them easier to transport to buyers.
From the rolled state, paper becomes part of the process to make new items. Layers of it go through processing and create corrugated cardboard for new boxes. Recycled paper becomes plain newsprint or goes through additional machines for processing. Some of it is cut into sheets of standard printer paper and packaged into reams. All of this takes place in a factory that will make the final product.
Know Where to Recycle Cardboard and Paper
Depending on your district, you may put the cardboard and papers in with your other recycled items like cans and bottles. That’s a single-stream recycling system. Otherwise, you have to separate paper items from glass, metal, and plastic and make sure they’re in separate bins. That’s known as a multi-stream recycling system. If you’re not sure, ask to find out which you’re part of.
Are you uncertain what cardboard and paper items are recyclable in your district? If you don’t see the answer in your local waste processing facility’s guide, there’s an easy solution. Visit Recycle Nation and enter your ZIP. Our guide will let you know the hours, contact information, and area facilities that accept cardboard and paper recycling.