How is Cardboard Recycled?

December 8 2023

Cardboard is one of the most widely recycled materials in the UK, with every local council able to collect and recycle from homes and many businesses.

Looking forward to Recycling Week 2024 in the UK, we thought this would be a great opportunity to look at what is an incredibly important topic for the packaging industry.


The cardboard recycling process

The difference between recycling cardboard and virgin material

Environmental benefits of cardboard recycling

Recycling your household cardboard waste

The cardboard recycling process

So what happens to the cardboard that you throw into the recycling bin once your bespoke Boxtopia box has done its job?

A step-by-step overview of how cardboard is recycled

  1. The cardboard is sorted and shredded
  2. It is mixed with water and pulped
  3. The pulp is filtered
  4. More water is added
  5. The mixture is rolled and dried

1. The cardboard is sorted and shredded

Cardboard needs some preparation before it can be recycled. The first step is sorting the different boards, with a distinction being made between boxboard (single-layer, like a cereal box) and corrugated (the kind we use for our single wall, double wall and die-cut boxes – two or more sheets sandwiching a creased layer).

Sorting is important because not all types of cardboard are created equally. Different types are made from different materials and processes, and those different types are only suitable to be recycled into certain products. Once it’s been sorted, the cardboard can be shredded into smaller pieces that work better in the later stages of the process.

2. It is mixed with water and pulped

The shredded material is poured into big tanks and mixed with water. This process, breaking down the cardboard, is known as pulping, and softens the cardboard and starts to make it into something that can be used as a material for new products.

3. The pulp is filtered

Waste cardboard is rarely 100% board. It nearly always gets mixed up with foreign materials like tape, staples and plastic packaging. Centrifugal systems are used to separate the various materials, based on weight. Magnets also help to remove metal items, however small.

Only after filtering is the cleaned pulp suitable to be stored for such a time as it is needed to make new cardboard in the future.

4. More water is added

When it’s required for manufacturing, the pulp is mixed with water again, pressed and stirred. This process helps get it to the right consistency for use further down the line. The length of this stage will depend on the kind of cardboard being manufactured and the materials being used. At this point, chemicals can be added to give the mix additional characteristics, like water-resistance.

5. The mixture is rolled and dried

At the start of this next stage, the mixture can contain up to 90% water, so it has to be treated before it can turn into anything more useful. A range of techniques can help at this stage, including vacuum rollers, vibrating conveyor belts and steam heating.

Ultimately, pressing the sheet through rollers helps to turn the sheet into something starting to resemble paper. The rollers are also used to add additional layers to the cardboard, depending on how thick it needs to be.

6. Sheets are converted to new cardboard

The result of the process is huge reels of brown paper, weighing several tonnes. These can then be cut to size and layered to make thicker cardboard.

In the case of corrugated cardboard, the sheets for the central sections are taken through rolls with teeth rather than smooth surfaces, which gives them that crinkled, ridged shape, that will go on to provide additional strength to the kind of board that we use for our boxes.

The recycling processes can vary depending on the recycling plant and the paper factory, but the basic steps remain the same: sorting, shredding, pulping, filtering, drying, pressing and rolling.

The difference between recycling cardboard and virgin material

As we’d hope you know by now, recycling cardboard involves using already processed cardboard that has been used and discarded to create new cardboard products.

Virgin materials however are freshly sourced material, such as wood pulp from trees, that are then used to create new cardboard.

How does making sure cardboard is recyclable help the planet? That’s what we going to talk about next.

Environmental benefits of cardboard recycling

Recycling cardboard is better for the environment in every way than making cardboard from new materials (‘virgin’ trees). In terms of recycling rates, approximately 71% of paper and cardboard packaging was recycled by UK households in 2021 (3.8 million metric tons) according to the Government’s UK Statistics on Waste.

Estimates vary on how much energy is saved by manufacturing cardboard from recycled materials, but the general consensus is somewhere between 25% and 50% saved. In addition, recycled cardboard means using between 70% and 100% less virgin material, and even up to 99% less water.

When manufactured in the UK, making cardboard from recycled material also saves on emissions from importing materials from overseas. The UK’s landmass is only about 12% forest and we can’t produce enough wood sustainably to manufacture the amount of paper and cardboard that we do. Recycling circumvents this problem, with the materials already being in the country.

The cardboard recycling process reduces how much cardboard ends up in landfill sites and reduces greenhouse gases. It also makes sure that virgin materials are used sparingly and for uses they are most needed for.

We hope that gaining a little insight into how cardboard is recycled stops it being a mysterious, magical process and turns it into something that has a clear goal and benefit, both to the environment and to British industry. If your business doesn’t already recycle its cardboard, it’s never too late to start! As well as helping save the planet it’s also great for business reputation.

Recycling your household cardboard waste FAQs

We’ve looked at some frequently asked questions about cardboard recycling. You should however always check with your local authorities about what can be recycled as this can vary greatly from area to area.

Can I recycle cardboard?

Cardboard waste is commonly recycled in household collection schemes by your local council and at local recycling centre.

You can find out the details of your local authority’s recycling program using the postcode tool on the Recycle Now website, where you’ll also find information about local recycling facilities.

Can I recycle cardboard with tape on it?

Most types of packing tape used to secure cardboard boxes are not recyclable, so it’s important that you remove sticky tape from cardboard before recycling. Using our die cut boxes means no packing tape is necessary as die cut boxes close using a slotted system.

Can you recycle cardboard food boxes?

Unfortunately only clean cardboard can be recycled. Cardboard with grease or food stains should go in your normal waste bin.

Can you recycle pizza boxes?

Pizza boxes can generally be recycled if they are clean and not covered in grease or food. Supermarket pizza boxes generally contain pizzas wrapped in film so will be clean and can be recycled.

Can you recycle shiny cardboard?

Shiny cardboard boxes should be recyclable but check with your local authority. Glitter is a no-no however so anything with glitter needs to go in the normal waste bin.

Are cardboard coffee cups recyclable?

Cardboard coffee cups are not usually recyclable in household waste collections, but you should check with the coffee shop. Many coffee shops do offer discounts to customers who bring their own cup into stores.

Can I recycle cereal boxes?

You can recycle cereal boxes through your council’s kerbside recycling bin, bag, or box, or by dropping them off at your local household waste recycling facility. Make sure they’re clean, unstained, and without any plastic inner bags before recycling. You can of course recycle those inner bags, most supermarkets have recycling points.

Can I recycling corrugated cardboard?

Corrugated cardboard is recyclable through your local council’s kerbside recycling service or at your local recycling facility.

Environmentally Friendly Packaging

Here at Boxtopia we produce a full range of eco friendly packaging.

All the of the cardboard we use is fully Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) compliant. Our boxes are made of board with recycled content between 70% to 100% and are 100% recyclable and 100% biodegradable.


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