The holiday season is well underway with shoppers looking to finish up last-minute gifts.
This season will likely see more items than ever before delivered to homes in the most-recycled packaging material: cardboard boxes.
Many consumers may not fully appreciate the dynamic marketplace for cardboard that is recovered for recycling. According to the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), 88.8 percent of all cardboard consumed in the U.S. was recovered for recycling in 2017, which saves an average of 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space for each ton recycled. Recovered cardboard is bought by domestic paper mills or exported to other countries to manufacture into new products, and while more of it is exported to China than anywhere else in the world, that is changing.
China is the biggest export market in the world for recycled materials like the cardboard used to ship holiday presents. However, China implemented new rules earlier this year that dramatically limit how much it will import. Consumers and businesses will need to improve their approach to recycling to ensure a happy holiday season doesn’t have a sad environmental impact.
According to AF&PA, last year 730,000 metric tons of paper recovered for recycling were sent to China through the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. However, in early 2018 China banned the import of two dozen types of recyclables and slashed the amount of food waste that is acceptable on recycled goods down to less than 1 percent. Without changes in how cardboard boxes are recycled, more of them could end up simply being carted off to landfills.
The good news is that businesses and consumers in Washington can act to ensure cardboard boxes used for holiday presents can still be properly recycled. Curbside recyclers are already taking steps to ensure recycled materials shipped to China will meet the new specifications.
More broadly, AF&PA has announced that it is working with other industry groups to increase the recovery of cardboard boxes like those used in holiday shipments. Amazon also announced it is investing $10 million to increase access to curbside recycling for millions of homes, which it estimated would support the diversion of nearly 1 million tons of recyclable material from landfills over the next 10 years.
While industry works to expand access to recycling, consumers have a critical role to play in ensuring as many cardboard boxes make it into the recovery stream as possible. When it comes to those boxes delivering holiday presents, the first thing is to make sure they are empty and broken down before going into the recycling bin. Full-size cardboard boxes take up a lot of space and, as a result, other things that could get recycled often end up in the trash when the recycling bin is too full. Tape is not a problem — boxes with tape should go in the recycling bin.
The next step is making sure that cardboard stays clean and dry until it is collected. About two-thirds of Western Washington’s famously abundant annual rain falls from November to January. Consumers should also avoid throwing dirty food containers into the recycling bin so they don’t spill their contents onto cardboard and other paper goods, rendering them useless for recycling and making them destined for a landfill.
This may seem like a lot of work, but the need is great. Unless consumers are more careful about what and how they recycle, a significant amount of perfectly recyclable materials will be reduced to waste that ends up in local landfills.
The holiday season should be a happy time, and it can be an environmentally responsible one as well by ensuring all of those cardboard boxes going into recycling bins are empty, clean and dry. With changes in the market for recycled goods like recovered fiber, our businesses and consumers will need to make just a bit more of an effort to ensure that it is.
Chris McCabe is executive director of the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association. Formed in 1956, NWPPA represents 12 member companies and 16 pulp and paper mills in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
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