Cardboard Recycling: Why it’s more important than ever to avoid contamination and improve quality

Business RecyclingCardboard

Putting the spotlight on one of our most recyclable materials and the issues the UK faces with it…

  Boy in cardboard box

Versatile, easy to transport and ready to personalise, cardboard is popular for a reason. It helps to safely deliver products, houses our morning breakfasts and, this summer, will be sending the world’s best athletes to sleep at the Tokyo Olympics. Luckily, this material is also super recyclable. In the UK, cardboard has the highest recycling rate of any packaging in the world (approximately 80%) and can be recycled into new products 4-5 times. Doing so reduces the need to use virgin wood, protecting our forests and the wildlife that live in them, conserves energy and cuts down pollution. So, recycling your cardboard is clearly a no-brainer.


However, with cardboard recycling, there’s a stumbling block – contamination. A classic example of this would be the greasy pizza box. Made from corrugated cardboard, it’s easy to understand how these takeaway boxes end up in the recycling. But, if they’re greasy or have leftover food on them, they become unrecyclable, because the paper fibres can’t be separated from the oil when they’re pulped. And this isn’t just a problem with food residue. Cardboard can be contaminated by all manner of things, including oils, large amounts of tape, delivery labels in plastic envelopes, and packaging materials left behind in boxes (e.g. polystyrene). As well as this, contamination can occur when the wrong items are put in the wrong bin, even if the offending item is recyclable in itself.


But, why is all of this such an issue? Because, by putting a contaminated item into your recycling bin, you risk also contaminating the other items in the bin. Meaning that, despite your good intentions, these items will probably end up going to Waste-to-Energy or landfill, both of which are lower down on the Waste Hierarchy and less environmentally-friendly than recycling.


The problem is contamination is costly to sort. It costs to separate non-recyclables from recyclables, to fix machinery broken by items that shouldn’t have been there, and to put recycling workers at risk of exposure to hazardous waste. By reducing the quality of the load, contamination is also costly on the recycling’s market value and, therefore, costly too for those who collect and sell the recyclable items. And this can get to the point where recycling facilities simply refuse to accept service from repeat offenders.


Which leads us nicely on to China – a country the UK, and the rest of the West, heavily relied on to ship waste to. In July 2017, China notified the World Trade Organisation that it would no longer accept low-grade wastes from other countries by the end of that year. The reason behind this? “We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China’s environment seriously. To protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health, we [will] urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted.”


As part of this change, China introduced stricter restrictions on the quality of recyclable cardboard they would accept. With limited opportunities for cardboard recycling on home soil and global waste ever on the rise, the UK has, consequently, seen an almost three-quarter drop in price for recyclable cardboard bales. And this could get worse when we leave the EU.


So, what can we do? Firstly, we all need to reduce the amount of waste we produce. And, secondly, we need to improve the quality of our waste. With better quality waste, we’re more likely to attract business back from the likes of China – especially when it comes to cardboard. Therefore, as individuals, businesses and as a country, it’s important to start thinking about quality when we recycle cardboard. To get you started here are 5 tips for getting the most out of your cardboard recycling…


  1. Check for contaminants. Don’t just take cardboard at face value. Before putting it into the recycling bin, check for:
  • Oils (especially if you work in the motoring trade)
  • Delivery labels in plastic envelopes
  • Large amounts of tape
  • Materials left inside boxes, such as polystyrene and plastic sheeting
  • Food residue
  1. Remove these contaminants if you can. If your cardboard is contaminated in some way, see if you can remove it – for example, by emptying the box out, or cutting the contaminated sections off. Salvaging some of the cardboard is better than none.
  2. Keep contaminated cardboard separate from clean. Make sure you put any non-recyclable cardboard into the general waste bin and keep it away from your recyclable cardboard.
  3. Find a dry storage place. Wet cardboard is difficult to recycle, so find somewhere dry to store it and make sure all items are dry when they go into your recycling bin.
  4. Break your items down. Cardboard boxes quickly take up a lot of space and can be problematic with recycling machinery. So, flatten your boxes down before putting them in the recycling.


For further advice on how best to recycle your cardboard, take a look at our website and get in touch!





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