Is Cardboard Biodegradable? Everything You Need To Know.

Cardboard Stack

We couldn’t imagine living a life without cardboard.

The image of the classic brown box has been an amazing container. It’s been used for hundreds of years and shows no signs of stopping.

But is something so ingrained in our society good for the environment? Does cardboard actually biodegrade, or is it as bad a plastic water bottle? And when you are finished with your cardboard, how do you properly dispose of it?

We’ll address these questions and more in this article. By the time you are finished reading, you’ll know everything you need to know about cardboard’s biodegradability, impact on the environment, and what you should do once you are done with it.

Alright, let’s just jump right in!

Is Cardboard Biodegradable? Everything You Need To Know.

Like usual, let’s address the million-dollar question first.

Is Cardboard Biodegradable?

100% Biodegradable and Recyclable

Yes, cardboard is 100% biodegradable as long as it’s clean. This means that the cardboard in question cannot be contaminated with food, water, oil, or any other non-recyclable material.

It can take 2 months to 12 months for cardboard to fully biodegrade depending on the size and thickness of the material, as well as the environment. It won’t degrade in landfills, for example.

Outside of landfills, it’s a different story. Since cardboard is just a derivative of paper (which is a derivative of wood), it breaks down very well when exposed to proper environmental conditions and microorganisms.

Now, there are two notable exceptions that you should be aware of.

Plastic-lined cardboard is not biodegradable due to the presence of those pesky polymers. You’d recognize them best as yard signs, real estate signs, for sale signs, or parking signs.

Waxed cardboard is also not readily biodegradable, as the wax is designed to be moisture-resistant and can block bacteria. This type of cardboard can be found as a vegetable container, beverage container, or a milk carton.

Is Cardboard Eco-Friendly?

Lumbar yard with path going through wood stacks

Yes, cardboard is generally considered to be eco-friendly. This is thanks to its high rate of biodegradability, vulnerability to certain environments, and lack of negative impact when present in nature.

However, you should always keep cardboard production in mind. It’s stated that 17 trees = 1 ton of corrugated cardboard. The loss of trees is just one factor of the eco-impact.

You should also consider the natural resources consumed (such as water) and the waste produced.

That said, the cardboard itself isn’t really harmful to the environment.

As we mentioned before, cardboard biodegrades fairly quickly since it’s mostly made from wood fibers. It’s easy for bacteria to consume and break down cardboard, greatly accelerating the process.

And since cardboard is broken down when exposed to rain, sun, and other environmental factors, it’s also easy to reduce the total area and increase the speed of bacterial consumption.

The best part is that cardboard doesn’t directly or indirectly harm animal/plant-life as long as the cardboard is present in small quantities.

Animals should not be eating large amounts of cardboard, as cardboard cannot be easily digested and could cause harmful, internal blockages when a lot is consumed.

That said, consuming a bit of cardboard won’t have negative impacts. There are no toxins that could leak into the soil or water. Cardboard won’t end up back in our diets from animals that consume it.

Waxed and plastic-lined cardboard is likely to have negative impacts, however. It’s best to keep this types of cardboard out of nature as much as possible.

Is Cardboard Recyclable?

Partially ripped cardboard section

Yes, cardboard is 100% recyclable. Cardboard is also one of the easiest materials to recycle; all you have to do is break it down, fold it up, put it in your recycling bin, and wait for your local waste management trucker to take care of the rest.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Remove all Styrofoam, packing peanuts, and any other packaging material. These are not recyclable with cardboard.
  2. Keep your boxes clean! Cardboard should be free of moisture or stains (including grease stains). If the cardboard is wet, allow it to dry first before recycling.
  3. Dented, damaged boxes can still be recycled.
  4. Don’t worry about labels or stickers. Those will be removed during the recycling process.
  5. Keep cardboard separate from other materials, including paper. The way cardboard is processed is slightly different from other processes.

Plastic-lined cardboard can also be recycled. You can recycle this type of cardboard the same way you would recycle regular cardboard: break it down, put it in a recycling bin, and wait for it to be taken away.

You can also take this cardboard directly to local recycling plants, which is a great way to confirm if your cardboard is truly recyclable.

Soiled cardboard, such as pizza boxes, cannot be recycled. It’s important that you do not try to recycle soiled cardboard, as it can ruin the whole batch of actually recyclable material.

Waxed cardboard also cannot be recycled. You should treat it like soiled/stained cardboard.

Fun fact: cardboard can be recycled 5 to 7 times. Cardboard is typically recycled into cereal boxes, paperboard, paper towels, tissues, and printing or writing paper.

After that, the fibers in the material are too short to be reused. At that point, the cardboard is turned into a paper paste and used in egg cartons, newspapers, and similarly textured items.

Is Cardboard Compostable?

Compost unit next to plants

Yes, cardboard is 100% compostable. This is because it’s actually just a thick stack of paper, which is made from wood.

Wood is a natural material that is easy for bacteria and other organisms to break down, making it a prime ingredient for compost.

But note that plastic-lined cardboard is NOT compostable. Even if all of the cardboard breaks down, the plastic lining will remain for centuries. You should stick to recycling this type of cardboard.

Here’s a quick step-by-step guide on how to compost your cardboard (steps originally found in this article):

  1. Purchase a compost bin or create your own (it’s not hard).
  2. Create a base by filling the bottom with shredded newspaper or leaves.
  3. Add dirt until the container is half full (or as much as the instructions for your bin specifies).
  4. Add your compostables (in this case paper).
  5. Mix the contents thoroughly.
  6. Moisten with lukewarm water (not too much or it will start to smell).
  7. Place the bin in a shaded area (the sun will dry out the compost, rendering it useless).
  8. Wait 2-3 months for the compost bin to work its magic.
  9. Collect your compost and use it as garden mulch, fertilizer, potting soil, or donate it to a local farmer. Just remember to keep at least a third of the compost in order to easily repeat this process.
  10. As a bonus, you can also add worms. They love eating biodegradable waste and pumping out fresh soil.

What’s great about composting is that it allows you to develop an eco-friendly material from non-recyclable materials.

Soiled or stained cardboard, such as pizza boxes or wet cardboard, are fantastic for composting (bacteria and other organisms like worms will definitely appreciate the grease).

Waxed cardboard is also good for composting. The conditions are better than natural biodegradation and will greatly speed up the process. You can even use waxworms to make sure that pesky wax is properly decomposed.

Composting is really just accelerated biodegradation. And the compost you get out of it can have major benefits for your garden plants.

Even if you have no use for it, there are services out there that can definitely use it. Some will allow you to drop it off and some will even come to pick it up!

Composting is very hands-off and inexpensive to start. Whether you are a beginner to going green or a seasoned veteran, we highly recommend giving it a shot!

In Summary

Alright, let’s go over the key points in this article:

  1. Cardboard is 100% biodegradable, recyclable, and compostable.
  2. Plastic-lined cardboard is recyclable, but not biodegradable or compostable.
  3. Soiled or stained cardboard is compostable and technically biodegradable (not recommended), but not recyclable.
  4. Wet cardboard can be recycled after drying off.
  5. Composting is awesome! Even if you have no use for the compost, you can donate it to any number of local organizations or farms.

Cardboard is one of the better eco-friendly materials that we use all the time. It’s strong, reliable, and fairly inexpensive to produce.

While the production of cardboard can have negative environmental impacts, the cardboard itself is fairly safe.

In order to lower these negative impacts, it’s best to recycle and compost cardboard.

Producing products from recycled cardboard only takes 75% of the energy needed to make new cardboard products.

Composting cardboard prevents it from ending up in a landfill while also making a nutrient-rich mulch for garden and agriculture purposes.

As long as you commit to reduce, reuse, and recycle, you can’t go wrong!

Wrap Up

That concludes our article! Now you can spread the word on how biodegradable (and eco-friendly) cardboard actually is.

Or you can just send them to this article 😉 .

Questions, comments, concerns, or just wanna chat? Leave a comment below and we’ll get right back to you. We’d love to hear from you all.

If you like this article, check out some of our others too:

As always, thanks for reading! We appreciate you stopping by!

Let’s all continue to strive for a greener, better way of living!

2 Replies to “Is Cardboard Biodegradable? Everything You Need To Know.

  1. Hi
    I’m wondering whether or not there are any chemicals used for gluing the cardboard layers together? And if so, would they easily decompose without leaving toxins in the compost? Any direction to finding the answer to this question would be greatly appreciated, thank you for the great info in this article. Best, Anamaria

    1. Hi Ana,

      The glue used to hold cardboard together may or may not be toxic. Corrugated cardboard is typically held together by starch-based glues. These are made from roots, tubers, and seeds of higher plants such as maize, potatoes, wheat, rice, and tapioca. The benefits of starch-based glues are that they are economical, easy to clean up, and eco-friendly. They would do well in compost. You can find more info about it here.

      Other cardboards may be made with polymer glues, which are closer to plastic. This makes them a bad fit for compost and not eco-friendly.

      Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to differentiate between the two. Unless you want to take the risk of spoiling your compost, it may be best to discard the pieces of cardboard that have been exposed to the glue.

      Thanks for reaching out. We appreciate your comment and hope our answer helps!

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