Is Cardboard Biodegradable and Recyclable – Cardboard Vs. Plastic: The Pros and Cons

Is Cardboard Biodegradable and Recyclable – Cardboard Vs. Plastic: The Pros and Cons

Is Cardboard More Sustainable Than Plastic?

When taking into account the raw materials used for producing cardboard and plastic, cardboard is considered to be more sustainable than plastic. Plastic is traditionally made from non-renewable raw materials such as petroleum byproducts. The primary raw material for cardboard, on the other hand, is pulp that is derived from trees, which is considered a renewable resource. Mature trees that have been harvested to produce cardboard are easily replaced with seedlings that will eventually develop into full grown trees to create additional raw materials for cardboard. Several successful sustainable forestry initiatives backed by manufacturers have ensured that certain tree populations are not depleted over time. It’s also important to note that used cardboard is easily recycled into new cardboard products, reducing the amount of trees required for production. Compared to using virgin materials, the use of recycled cardboard results in less water and air pollution during the production process. 

When comparing production processes, however, plastic has advantages. Plastic requires less energy and water to produce than cardboard. Plastic is also less expensive to transport than cardboard due to its lighter weight, requiring less fuel and resulting in lower vehicle emissions. In the end, the production and use of plastic in packaging results in a lower carbon footprint than cardboard. 

While plastic has its advantages during production and transportation, it’s important to take into account the end-of-life impact plastic has on the environment. Cardboard, which can be recycled into more cardboard and also breaks down more quickly in landfills than plastic, has clear advantages over plastic in terms of sustainability and disposal. When plastic products wind up in landfills at the end of their useful lives, they don’t biodegrade and will hold onto their carbon components forever. Unfortunately, a high percentage of plastic is never recycled and if it doesn’t wind up in landfills it eventually pollutes natural ecosystems in multiple environments including our rivers and oceans. Plastics can also leach chemicals such as BPA and phthalates into the environment, posing significant health concerns to all members of the food chain. 

What is Cardboard Made Out of and How is Cardboard Used?

Cardboard is made by first harvesting fast-growing trees, such as pine trees, removing their branches and stripping them of their bark. The wood is then chipped into small pieces which are then processed into a soft pulp. The pulp is converted into large rolls of kraft paper. Wide rolls of kraft paper are then sent to manufacturing plants for developing items such as paperboard, card stock and corrugated cardboard. Final end products include items for packaging and storage, such as shipping boxes, toilet paper rolls, and cereal boxes, among others. Other raw materials such as corn starch glue and paraffin wax or vegetable oil based liners are sometimes added during the production process, depending on the final end product, as are ink and dyes to add graphics and color. 

Cardboard is Recyclable

Can you Recycle or Compost Cardboard?

Cardboard products are biodegradable and cardboard that has not been contaminated with food or waste is easily recyclable. Cardboard can be re-pulped to be used as raw materials in new paper and cardboard products. Cardboard is also compostable, and serves as a useful foundation for any gardener’s compost. Plastic on the other hand, which is made from non-renewable resources and can take thousands of years to decompose, has a higher impact on the environment at the end of its useful life. While some plastic is recyclable, the market for recycled plastics is limited and much of the plastic that turns up in the recycling stream is contaminated and therefore not reusable or recyclable. 

Where Can I Dispose of Cardboard Boxes?

Cardboard boxes can be repurposed multiple times and be reused for storage, transportation or shipping before they reach the end of their useful lives.  Should you wish to eventually dispose of your cardboard boxes, be sure to keep them clean and dry. Cardboard boxes can be easily recycled at a local recycling center or if available, be placed in a home recycling bin and processed by your local waste management company. It is important to flatten and break down boxes so they will conserve space in recycling containers and can be more easily transported. In addition, as mentioned above, because cardboard boxes are biodegradable, another option is to add them to a gardener’s compost and have them turned into mulch.