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Last updated: 3 April 2024

Is Cardboard Bad for the Environment?

Cardboard is often the eco-friendly champion against plastic packaging, celebrated for its renewable roots, biodegradability, and recyclability. Beyond the box, varieties like corrugated cardboard and paperboard highlight versatility, with corrugated options providing the robust backbone for shipping needs worldwide. 

Our generation sees an impressive recovery statistic, with around 70% of all corrugated cardboard boxes finding new life through recycling efforts. Its prevalence in our daily lives raises essential questions about its environmental impact. "Is cardboard bad for the environment, or does it offer a sustainable packaging solution?"

Cardboard is one of the most widely use form of packaging

This article delves into the environmental implications of cardboard use, exploring its production, recycling processes, and overall sustainability. This analysis is not just about understanding what cardboard is made of; it's about grasping its entire lifecycle, from sustainable packaging choice to its final bow in the recycling bin.

What do we mean by cardboard exactly?

Cardboard, often interchangeably used with corrugated fiberboard, is ubiquitous daily. Known for its versatility and durability, it is primarily used for packaging and shipping, protecting a wide range of products. 

This material is made from cellulose fibre, which comes from trees in the form of wood pulp. It can range from thick paper, known as paperboard, to corrugated fiberboard, which consists of multiple layers of paper with a fluted or corrugated layer to provide additional strength and cushioning. 

Here's a breakdown to clarify what we typically refer to when discussing cardboard:

  1. Types of Cardboard:
  2. Characteristics and Uses:

In summary, when we talk about cardboard, we're referring to a versatile, eco-friendly material that plays a crucial role in packaging and shipping. 

The Environmental Impact of Cardboard

The production and disposal of cardboard have significant environmental implications. On the positive side, cardboard is biodegradable and recyclable, with a high recycling rate of 92.9%

However, the production of cardboard is not without its environmental costs. It involves consuming large amounts of water and energy, and using virgin wood pulp contributes to deforestation and habitat destruction. Additionally, cardboard that ends up in landfills decomposes anaerobically, producing methane over 20 times the potent greenhouse gas

However, the paper manufacturing industry is one of the lowest greenhouse gas emitters compared to other materials like plastic. In 2017, the industry contributed just 0.8% to global emissions, significantly lower than plastic's 4.5%. Moreover, it has a relatively small carbon footprint, with one ton of corrugated cardboard generating 538 kg of carbon equivalent emissions throughout its lifecycle.

What is so bad about cardboard for the environment?

Despite its eco-friendly reputation, cardboard's production leads to habitat loss via deforestation and reduces the planet's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, exacerbating climate change.

Cardboard constitutes a large portion of municipal solid waste. In the UK alone, families discard approximately 13,000 pieces of cardboard annually, much of which ends up in landfills.

In landfills, decomposing cardboard releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that impacts climate change more severely than carbon dioxide.

AspectDetailEnvironmental Impact
CompositionMade from cellulose fibre (wood pulp)Uses natural resources; potential deforestation
Recycling Rate93% for cardboard boxes in 2022Reduces waste and conserves resources
Energy Savings25% to 50% less energy to recycleLowers carbon footprint
Water UsageHigh in productionStrains water resources
Methane ProductionWhen decomposing in landfillsContributes to greenhouse gas emissions

What is the impact of cardboard?

Various metrics must be considered to understand the full scope of cardboard's environmental impact, including its total impact per year, daily impact, and impact per usage.

Total Impact Per Year

Global production generates millions of tonnes of waste annually. The manufacturing of 1 tonne of cardboard emits 538 kg of CO2. In the United States alone, over 90% of all products are shipped in cardboard, contributing to significant waste. Although recycling rates are high, with over 93% of cardboard boxes recycled in 2022, the sheer volume of production and waste remains a concern. However, 1 tonne of recycled cardboard could save 700 gallons of water

Impact Per Day

The environmental impact of cardboard is manifested daily in the energy consumed and waste generated by its production, use, and disposal. The energy required to produce one ton of virgin cardboard is substantial. While recycling reduces this energy consumption by 75%, the daily use of packaging and shipping contributes to environmental degradation.

Impact Per Usage

Each time cardboard is used for packaging, it has a cumulative environmental impact. From the energy and water used in its production to the emissions released during recycling or decomposition, the footprint of a single cardboard box is more significant than it might seem. However, the impact can be mitigated by reducing usage, reusing boxes, and ensuring they are properly recycled.

Cardboard in the largest economies

In examining the role of cardboard in the largest economies, we observe a multifaceted picture influenced by global trade dynamics, consumer behaviour, and environmental considerations. 

The following data encapsulates key insights:

CountryDeforestation ImpactAnnual Cardboard Use (Tonnes)Carbon Footprint (kg CO2e/kg)Recycling Rate (%)Landfill Contribution (%)
United StatesModerate31 million0.94 - 1.539356
ChinaHigh41 million1.14 (virgin)68.225
United KingdomLow12.5 million1.53 (flat cardboard)99.855
GermanyLow8.6 million0.94 (recycled)71.435
JapanModerate7 Million1.14 - 1.8577N/A
This data table provides a concise perspective of the cardboard industry's current state, reflecting the significant environmental and economic implications. The adjustments by major economies and companies underscore the need for sustainable practices and efficient waste management.

The production of cardboard necessitates wood pulp, leading to deforestation. However, countries like Germany and the United Kingdom mitigate this through sustainable forest management and high recycling rates.

Recycled generally has a lower carbon footprint, ranging from 0.94 kg CO2e/kg to 1.53 kg CO2e/kg. 

The United States boasts a high recycling rate of 93% for cardboard, closely followed by Germany and the United Kingdom. This high recycling rate significantly reduces environmental impact.

Despite high recycling rates, a significant portion remains in landfills, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, contributing to methane emissions and waste management issues.

Let's take a look at sectors and usage.

Cardboard Usage and Economic Indicators:

  • United States: Approximately 90% of products ship in cardboard, highlighting its integral role in trade and commerce. However, a notable decline in cardboard box usage signals a slowdown in the economy, attributed to reduced global trade activities.
  • Production Capacity Adjustments: North American companies have responded to the decreased demand by shutting down nearly 1 million tons of capacity in the corrugated box sector. Falling prices for raw materials mirror this contraction, the first decline since 2020.
  • Export Trends: The U.S., as the leading exporter of packaging paper, experienced a 21% reduction in volumes sent overseas in October 2022 compared to the previous year, indicating shifting global market dynamics.

Global Production and Consumption Patterns:

  • China's Dominance: Leading the world in paper and paperboard production, China produced over 128 million metric tons in 2022, with a significant portion attributed to cardboard. This marks a substantial increase from the early 2000s, in contrast to the declining production in countries like the United States.
  • Global Production Volume: The worldwide output of paper and paperboard stood at approximately 414.09 million metric tons in 2022, with corrugated material accounting for about 44% of this total.

Industry Responses and Adjustments:

  • Export Strategy Shifts: Klabin, Brazil's largest packaging-paper exporter, contemplates reducing its exports by nearly half, reflecting the broader industry trend towards recalibrating production and export strategies in light of changing demand.
  • Pulp Market Adjustments: Sluggish demand extends to pulp, the primary raw material for paper. This prompts major exporters like Suzano to lower prices in key markets such as China, marking the first price cut since late 2021.

Can you burn cardboard?

Burning cardboard releases carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Depending on the ink and adhesives used in the cardboard, the combustion process can also emit other harmful substances. These include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and other harmful particulate matter that affect air quality and human health.

In addition, it burns at a high temperature, posing a risk of uncontrolled fires. The risk increases if stored in large quantities or burned in an area not designed for safe burning.

Is Cardboard Toxic?

When assessing cardboard's toxicity, it's crucial to consider the materials and processes involved in its production and recycling. However, the potential health risks of cardboard stem from the chemicals used in its recycling process. 

Recycled cardboard often contains mineral oils from inks, which can migrate into food products packaged in cardboard. Long-term exposure to these mineral oils has been linked to chronic inflammation and cancer. 

However, the safe limit for mineral oil-saturated hydrocarbons is a migration of 0.6 mg per kilogram, emphasising the need to carefully monitor recycled cardboard used in food packaging.

Testing sixteen food contact articles (FCAs) found bioactivities in six of eight assays, including effects on the estrogen and androgen receptors, oxidative stress, genotoxicity, and agonistic effects on the estrogen receptor. 

This analysis underscores the importance of stringent quality control and monitoring in producing and recycling cardboard to mitigate potential health risks, especially in food packaging applications.

Can Cardboard be Recycled?

Recycling cardboard is pivotal in waste management, preserving resources, and reducing environmental impact. The process involves collecting, sorting, and reprocessing cardboard into new products. 

Recycling uses 25% and 50% less energy and up to 99% less water than producing new cardboard from virgin materials. 

In addition, recycling cardboard significantly reduces the need for virgin raw materials, saving 17 trees, 7000 gallons of water, 380 gallons of oil, and 4100 kilowatt-hours of electricity per ton of recycled paper

The economic aspect of cardboard must be considered. An unopened cardboard box filled with packs of hockey cards from 1979-1980 sold for a staggering £2.7 million at auction, highlighting the material's value in specific contexts. Additionally, paper mills buy cardboard in bulk, provided it is separated from other paper, which can be a revenue source for businesses that use large quantities of cardboard. 

The global recycling rate for cardboard is high, with countries like the United States and France boasting rates of over 90%. For instance, the U.S. recovers about 70% of all corrugated cardboard boxes for recycling, making it the most recycled material in the country. Moreover, producing new cardboard from raw materials would recycle one ton of cardboard, saving over nine cubic yards of landfill space. 

Furthermore, the fibres in corrugated cardboard can be recycled up to 25 times, making it a highly sustainable packaging option. Efficient recycling systems also save 3 tons (per ton of recycled cardboard) of trees. 

However, challenges such as contamination with food waste, the presence of adhesives, and the degradation of fibres after multiple recycling cycles can affect the efficiency of recycling.

Global Recycling Rates and Impact:

  • United States: The country recycles about 70% of all corrugated cardboard boxes, with 46 million tons of paper and cardboard recycled in 2018.
  • France: Boasts a 93.5% recycling rate for corrugated cardboard waste.
  • United Kingdom: Saves 34 million trees yearly by recycling corrugated cardboard.

Are Cardboard's Biodegradable?

Yes, cardboard is biodegradable. Depending on factors such as wax coatings, this process can take up to two months.

When shredded or torn into strips, corrugated cardboard decomposes faster in compost bins, transforming into compost material within two months. The UK composts about 3 million tonnes of cardboard annually, demonstrating its potential as a compostable resource.

Beyond composting, corrugated cardboard finds a second life in various forms, such as school display boards, additional storage solutions, and gardening applications, highlighting its versatility and compostability. 

Globally, efforts to increase the cardboard recycling rate and reduce reliance on single-use packaging materials are gaining momentum. Sustainable forestry practices and innovations in biodegradable packaging materials also contribute to a more eco-friendly use of cardboard.

While cardboard's biodegradability is an asset, its decomposition in landfills poses environmental challenges. However, its environmental implications emphasise the importance of recycling and sustainable practices.

Quick Facts on Cardboard Biodegradability:

  • Material Composition: Primarily wood pulp (cellulose).
  • Decomposition Time: Under optimal conditions, untreated cardboard can decompose in about two months. Waxed or treated cardboard takes longer.
  • Environmental Impact: Cardboard is a renewable resource and can significantly reduce landfill waste when adequately recycled.
  • Recycling Rate: The U.S. recovers about 70% of all corrugated cardboard for recycling.

Is cardboard sustainable?

In the era of online shopping and global shipping, cardboard has become ubiquitous. It is due to its biodegradability and recyclability. However, the sustainability of cardboard involves a complex interplay of factors, including production processes, recycling rates, and environmental impacts.

To understand if it is a sustainable material, we can break down the discussion into three critical areas: renewable sources, Greenhouse gas emissions, and waste management.

  1. Renewable Source: Cardboard is produced from trees, a renewable resource. Nearly 60% of the energy used in the paper industry comes from renewable (solar energy) biofuels, with a significant reduction in fossil fuel consumption by 56% between 1972 and 2006. Sustainable forestry practices are crucial to ensure a balance between production and preservation of ecosystems.
  2. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The paper manufacturing industry, responsible for cardboard production, contributes a relatively low 0.8% to global emissions compared to plastic's 4.5%. Corrugated cardboard packaging can store carbon, potentially reducing overall carbon emissions. Despite its lightweight nature reducing transportation emissions, the bulkiness of cardboard can lead to higher vehicle carbon emissions.
  3. Waste Management: Cardboard boasts high recycling rates. In the UK, over 80% of cardboard is recycled, showcasing a strong recycling infrastructure. Globally, the recycling rate for corrugated containers is 92.4%. Recycling cardboard saves up to 50% of the energy required to make new cardboard, significantly reducing carbon emissions.

This concise overview demonstrates cardboard's potential as a sustainable packaging material when managed responsibly. Its reliance on renewable resources, lower greenhouse gas emissions than plastic, and high recyclability make it eco-friendly.

What Are Alternatives to Cardboard?

Exploring the alternatives to traditional cardboard packaging, we identify several innovative and eco-friendly options that significantly reduce environmental impact. Each alternative presents unique benefits, emphasising sustainability, biodegradability, and recyclability. Below is a comparative analysis of these alternatives:

Eco-Friendly Packaging Materials:

  1. Corrugated Bubble Wrap: Combines the cushioning properties of bubble wrap with the structural support of corrugated cardboard, making it ideal for shipping fragile items.
  2. Biodegradable Packing Peanuts: Made from natural materials like cornstarch, these peanuts offer excellent cushioning and are compostable, reducing environmental impact.
  3. Cornstarch Packaging: Derived from corn starch, this material is biodegradable and compostable, offering a sustainable alternative to traditional plastic packaging.
  4. Mushroom Packaging: Utilizes agricultural waste and mycelium to create biodegradable and compostable packaging suitable for various applications.
  5. Seaweed Packaging: Made from seaweed, this innovative packaging solution is biodegradable and even edible, presenting a novel way to reduce single-use plastic waste
  6. Kraft Paper Mailing Bags: Water-proof, tear-resistant, and sustainable.
  7. FlyPak: Custom fit reducing void fill, offers branding options, and is produced from cardboard.
  8. Crash Lock Boxes: Instant adhesion, easy assembly, interlocking base for security.
  9. Peel and Seal Packaging: Quick packing/unwrapping, made from paper, easy to recycle.
  10. Sugarcane Pulp Inserts: Sustainable alternative to plastic inserts, a byproduct of the sugar industry.
  11. Mycelium Packaging: Cost-effective, renewable, and protective moulds in less than a week.
  12. Recycled & Eco-Friendly Plastics: Utilizing recycled plastics for packaging reduces the demand for new plastic production and encourages recycling.
  13. Corrugated Plastic: Offers a waterproof and durable alternative to cardboard, with a longer shelf life and resistance to moisture

Comparative Analysis and Cost Comparison:

Alternative PackagingMaterial SourceBiodegradabilityRecyclabilityCost (per tonne)Unique Feature
CardboardPaperHighYes£100 - £200Highly recyclable, can be printed on, and cut into any shape or size
Corrugated Bubble WrapCorrugated CardboardLowYes£150 - £250High shock absorption
Biodegradable Packing PeanutsCornstarch/Potato StarchHighCompostable£200 - £300Dissolves in water
Cornstarch PackagingCornstarchHighCompostable£250 - £350It breaks down into non-toxic components
Mushroom PackagingAgricultural WasteHighCompostable£300 - £400Moldable into various shapes
Seaweed PackagingSeaweedHighCompostable£350 - £450Edible in some cases
Recycled & Eco-Friendly Plasticspolypropylene (PP) or polyethylene (PE),HighLow£50 - £150
Waterproof and resistant to most weather conditions
Corrugated PlasticPolypropylene resinHighLow£100 - £200Lightweight and tough, it can easily be cut with a utility knife

Is Cardboard Better Than Its Alternatives?

While cardboard is a popular and widely used packaging material, there are better choices for some applications. The alternatives listed above offer several advantages over cardboard, such as improved environmental sustainability, enhanced durability, and reduced weight, which can lead to lower transportation costs and emissions. 

However, the choice between cardboard and its alternatives depends on the specific requirements of the packaging task, including the type of product being packaged, budget constraints, and environmental considerations.

Environmental Impact Compared to Everyday Things

When considering the environmental impact of everyday items, cardboard has a significant carbon footprint. On average, one ton of corrugated cardboard emits 538 kg of CO2e throughout its lifecycle. This includes the energy used in manufacturing, transportation, and end-of-life processes such as recycling or landfilling.

This figure is significantly lower than some alternatives. For instance, plastic has a higher carbon footprint in its production phase, with 6 kg of CO2e emitted per kilogram of plastic created.

Comparison with Other Materials

To put cardboard's environmental impact into perspective, let's compare its CO2 emissions with those of other packaging materials:

MaterialCO2 Emissions (kg CO2e/ton)RecyclabilityWeight Impact on Transport
PlasticUp to 6,000LowLow
Aluminium2,160 - 17,000HighLow

However, we can compare them to everyday items or activities.

To put cardboard's carbon footprint into perspective, let's compare it to some daily activities and items:

  • Driving a Car: The average passenger vehicle emits about 404 grams of CO2e per mile. This means that producing one ton of cardboard is equivalent to driving a car for 1,331 miles.
  • A Gallon of Gasoline: Burning one gallon of gasoline produces about 8.89 kg of CO2e. Therefore, the CO2e of one ton of cardboard equals the emissions from burning approximately 60 gallons of gasoline.
  • Household Electricity: The average UK household emits about 2,745 kg of CO2e annually from electricity use. The production of one ton of cardboard would account for nearly 20% of this annual footprint.
  • Air Travel: A single flight from London to New York generates about 986 kg of CO2e per passenger. Thus, producing one ton of cardboard has a carbon footprint of slightly over half of that transatlantic flight.

Understanding the carbon footprint of everyday items like cardboard helps us make more informed decisions about our consumption and disposal habits.

Statistics, Facts and Figures About Cardboards

In exploring cardboard's environmental footprint, we uncover a landscape marked by its ubiquity and challenges. Our analysis draws upon the latest statistics and facts to comprehensively understand cardboard's global impact. Our sources include Statista, EPA, and Eurostat Statistics Explained.

Global Production and Recycling Rates:

  • Annual Production: Over 70 million tonnes of cardboard are produced worldwide, highlighting its critical role in global commerce and packaging.  
  • Recycling: Cardboard stands as one of the most recycled materials on the planet, a testament to global efforts towards sustainability.
  • Waste Generation: Despite high recycling rates, businesses and consumer demand generate substantial waste, with 40% of all waste in the USA comprising cardboard or paper.
  • Recycled Content Usage: 66% of all packaging and 55% of newsprint use recycled fibres.
  • Recycling Rates: The U.S. reports a cardboard recycling rate of 74%, while the EU boasts a rate of 71.4%

Economic Value and Waste Management:

  • Industry Worth: The global cardboard industry boasts a value exceeding £3 billion, underscoring its economic significance.
  • Disposal: Annually, 17 billion cardboard tubes are discarded, contributing significantly to waste streams.
  • Packaging Waste in the EU: Paper and cardboard represent the primary packaging waste material, responsible for 34 million tonnes annually.
  • Landfill Issues: In 2018, 67.7 million tons of paper and cardboard ended up in the U.S. solid waste stream

Environmental Impact

  • Recycling Benefits: Recycling one ton of cardboard can save 390 kWh of energy, 1.1 barrels (46 gallons) of oil, and 6.6 million Btu's of energy.
  • Carbon Footprint: One ton of corrugated cardboard generates 538 kg of carbon equivalent emissions throughout its lifecycle.
  • Deforestation Concerns: Cardboard production often leads to deforestation, impacting wildlife and contributing to climate change.

Regional Insights

  • North America: The U.S. has a significant cardboard waste problem, with $4 billion lost economic value due to cardboard and paper waste in landfills.
  • Europe: The European paper and cardboard market is undergoing structural changes. In 2021, the recycling rate was 71.4%.
  • Asia: Asia incorporated up to 72% of recycled content in its paper and board production in 2018

UK Specific Data:

  • Packaging Waste: The UK produces 5,389,000 tons of paper and cardboard packaging waste every year, with a recycling rate of 70.6%, translating into 3,802,000 tons recycled annually.

Global Consumption Trends:

  • 2022 Consumption: The global consumption of paper and cardboard was approximately 414.19 million metric tons, indicating a growing demand.
  • The global consumption of paper and cardboard has seen fluctuations over the years, with a notable increase in usage due to the rise of e-commerce.
  • Growth Since 1990: Global paper and paperboard consumption has increased by nearly 75 per cent since 1990.
  • Future Projections: By 2030, global paper consumption is expected to surpass 460 million metric tons, driven by the demand for packaging paper and board due to the e-commerce boom 

Economic Aspects

  • Market Growth: The global cardboard sheet market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 6.7%, reaching £71.6 billion by 2028.
  • Waste Management: The U.S. faces an annual loss of about £3.2 billion due to cardboard and paper waste in landfills.
  • In 2022 the global cardboard sheet market was valued at £48.5 billion.

This provides a concise overview of the cardboard industry's key statistics, emphasising the importance of recycling and the economic impact of waste.

Through a rigorous exploration of cardboard's journey from production to disposal, it becomes clear that this ubiquitous material harbours a dual identity: an eco-friendly packaging option and a source of environmental concern.

The widespread use of cardboard in global economies underscores its indispensable role in commerce while simultaneously spotlighting the critical need for sustainable practices.

As we stand at this environmental crossroads, the path forward entails harnessing the benefits of cardboard and innovating and implementing practices that diminish its ecological footprint. By embracing sustainability in every facet of cardboard's lifecycle, we contribute to a healthier planet, demonstrating that progress and environmental stewardship can go hand in hand.

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