Cardboard is one of the most popular packaging materials on the market due to its low cost and versatility. However, like all products made from trees, it has some environmental impacts. In this article, we’ll delve into the topic of cardboard waste and explain the factors at play when it comes to making it sustainable.
What Exactly Is Cardboard?
You’ve undoubtedly seen, used and cut it your whole life, but do you actually know what cardboard is made of? It turns out there’s a lot more to this common packaging material than meets the eye.
Cardboard is made of paper – specifically, multiple layers of kraft paper. Kraft paper is a type of strong, thick paper made from wood pulp that has been specially treated to increase its strength and resistance to tears. To make cardboard, these kraft paper sheets are glued or pressed together to form a dense, stiff material.
How Cardboard Can Negatively Impact the Environment
Although cardboard is derived from paper materials, it isn’t inherently eco-friendly. Here are just some of the ways that cardboard can negatively impact the environment:
1. It Promotes Landfills
Cardboard is one of the most popular packaging materials on Earth, and therefore makes up a large portion of household waste. So much so in fact, that it’s estimated the average family tosses as many as 13,000 separate pieces of it every year. Multiply that by the number of homes in a country as populated as the UK and you’ve got a major problem on your hands – one where there’s simply too much cardboard and not enough people disposing of it properly.
Out of the 26 million tonnes of annual waste in the country, approximately 55% of it isn’t recycled. This works out to 14 million tonnes per year, almost all of which ends up getting thrown into landfills and nature to rot.
The more unnecessary waste we have in our landfills, the more damage we’re doing to the environment. These lumps of trash encroach upon valuable ecosystems and likewise contaminate surrounding waterways and air quality.
Continuing to use cardboard in the way we have means supporting the development of polluted wastelands and creating a future where the UK’s zero-landfill waste stream goal is nothing but fantasy.
2. It Negatively Affects Wildlife
Being made almost entirely from wood pulp and cellulose fibres, cardboard is a relatively biodegradable and sustainable product. Of course, only if produced and disposed of in moderation.
When taken too far, the mass production of this material can require high levels of deforestation as well as habitat destruction. What’s more, the improper disposal of (failure to recycle) cardboard can also have a devastating impact on the environment, further driving up demand for new wood pulp products and culminating outdoors in the form of litter. All of this negatively affects wildlife who depend on local ecosystems to survive.
3. It Produces Methane
When paper and cardboard products end up in landfill, they are subject to decomposition. This is a process of chemical biodegradation where organic matter is broken down by microorganisms in the presence of oxygen.
While decomposition is a natural occurrence, it’s not one we should be encouraging on such a large scale. In anaerobic conditions (absence of oxygen), decomposition results in the production of methane – a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Not only does methane contribute significantly to climate change, but it’s also one of the leading causes of air pollution. This is a problem not just in the UK but all around the world, making it imperative that we do whatever we can to reduce our reliance on cardboard and other paper products.
4. It’s a Resource-Intensive Product
The production of cardboard is an extremely resource-intensive process. Not only does it require trees (a renewable resource), but it also needs large amounts of water and energy to transform wood pulp into the final product.
Deforestation is a major problem in many parts of the world, and it’s only made worse by our insatiable demand for paper products. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area of forest the size of Panama is cut down every single year to make paper products and vacate land for industrial use.
This not only destroys wildlife habitats but also contributes to climate change, as trees play a vital role in sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Common Types of Cardboard Waste
There are many different types of cardboard waste, each with its own unique set of environmental impacts.
1. Corrugated Cardboard
Corrugated cardboard is the most common type of cardboard waste. It’s made up of three layers of paper – a wavy inner layer, a flat middle layer, and a smooth outer layer.
Corrugated cardboard is used for packaging everything from appliances to produce. It’s also used to make cardboard boxes, which are one of the most common types of waste produced by households.
2. Wax-Coated Cardboard
Wax-coated cardboard is a type of corrugated cardboard that has been coated with a thin layer of wax. This wax makes the cardboard waterproof and gives it a glossy finish.
Wax-coated cardboard is often used for packaging food, as it helps to keep the contents fresh. However, it’s not recyclable, which means it has to go to a landfill where it will release methane gas as it decomposes.
Boxboard is a type of cardboard made up of two layers of paper – a thin inner layer and a thicker outer layer. It’s often used to make cereal boxes, shoe boxes, and other types of packaging.
Boxboard is recyclable, but it’s not as strong as corrugated cardboard, which means it can’t be used for as many purposes.
4. Laminated Cardboard
Laminated cardboard is a type of cardboard that has been coated with a thin layer of plastic. This makes it more durable and waterproof, but it also makes it non-recyclable.
Laminated cardboard is often used for food packaging, as the plastic layer helps to keep the contents fresh. However, once it’s been used, it has to go to a landfill where it will take centuries to decompose.
How Cardboard Can Be Made Sustainable
Despite all of the potential environmental damages of cardboard, the fact remains that it’s still one of the most environmentally-friendly and cost-effective packing materials on the market. It’s replacing plastic in a range of ways, from food packaging to retail packaging, and it can be much less impactful to nature if handled the right way.
In many ways, recycling is our best hope for making cardboard sustainable. Recycling cardboard not only reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfill but also conserves resources and energy, as it takes much less energy to recycle cardboard than it does to produce new cardboard from scratch.
While cardboard does have some environmental impacts, it is still one of the more sustainable packing materials available. Recycling is the best way to reduce its environmental footprint, and by doing so we can help to conserve resources and energy.