The life of that cardboard box – A closer look at local recycling

By Kate Klimesh,

I can still hear my grandma say, “Oooh, that’s a nice cardboard box. I better put that in the attic.” There was a time when cardboard boxes were a resource to hang on to – just in case. Now, cardboard is found in many different items from pizza boxes to delivering items from online orders. It’s also being recycled more often.

Cardboard is a commodity in the world of waste, and is collected and sold for recycling into future products at the Winneshiek County Recycling Center. There, cardboard is flattened and stored until they have 40 1,000-pound cardboard bales that can fill a semi-truck. It is then purchased by companies like American Fiber Services, who act as brokers for the products to get to their next stage of usefulness. 

Joe Hummel, the Midwest representative for AFS in Iowa City, relayed the pathways of the cardboard that is collected at the Decorah recycling plant, and what happens to it once it reaches its destination. “Old corrugated containers, or OCC, are purchased from Decorah’s center and shipped to a Minneapolis paper mill called Liberty Paper, or to other mills in Wisconsin. Cardboard can be recycled into two main products: boxes for packaging, and hand towels tissue and napkins.”

Some of the products from OCC could be the fluted corrugated filler inside medium cardboard boxes, or liners for new boxes that are created – the brown facing people see on their cardboard boxes. 

“Most of the office copy paper from document destruction can also be used to make tissues, white paper towels and napkins,” Hummel added.

“Each time OCC is recycled, the fiber length is shortened. Paper has a finite number of times it can be recycled. Even though a lot of cardboard is being recycled, we’d be out of paper and cardboard within two weeks if they weren’t continuing to make new cardboard.” 

Hummel noted that as the fibers are recycled, they get a bit rough. “If you notice a tissue or napkin isn’t as soft, it’s probably got a higher recycled fiber content in it.”

Cardboard recycling is also subject to market demand for material. When COVID first hit, demand for cardboard went way down. Then, with more people working from home and an increase in online commerce, there was a huge increase in demand. Hummel reported, “Cardboard has had a tumultuous market in the last year. In July of 2022, it was $155 a ton, and now, we’re looking at $40 a ton. The market was too high for far too long, and we’re seeing those market corrections now. Over the last five years, its averaged $80 a ton.” 

The breakdown

The OCC are put through a hydro pulper machine that uses water and steam to break down the cardboard, remove contaminants and form a pulp slurry. That slurry is piped to a pulping screen which further removes contaminants and separates paper fibers.

After further refining and centrifuging off much of the water, the pulp is pumped to the paper machine where the pulp and water mixture is spread onto a moving forming wire – similar to a window screen. The wire allows the water to pass through, but not the paper fibers.

Water is drained off the sheets before it moves through a press, which extracts more water from the pulp. The sheet moves into a dryer, until it reaches about seven percent water. As the paper reaches the end of the dryer section, it passes through a set of calendar rolls that give it a smooth finish.

These rolls of recycled paper are then shipped to final manufacturers, where they start their life of use yet again. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, cardboard and paper may be recycled five to seven times before the fibers become too broken and short and won’t make any new paper products. The EPA noted that plastics can be recycled once or maybe twice due to degradation of the material before ending up in a landfill. It is usually made into plastic lumber or synthetic fibers for fabric or insulation. In 2018, 13.62 percent of plastics were recycled, 16.93 percent went through combustion with energy recovery, and 69 percent went to landfills.

Want to make a big impact with your recycling habits? Be sure to recycle metal cans and containers from your waste. Metals can be infinitely recycled into new products, and can help make the most revenue for your local recycling center. 

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