Don't Make These Mistakes When Recycling Paper and Cardboard

There are some cases where you shouldn't toss your boxes straight into a recycling bin. We'll explain.

Katie Teague Writer II
Katie is a writer covering all things how-to at CNET, with a focus on Social Security and notable events. When she's not writing, she enjoys playing in golf scrambles, practicing yoga and spending time on the lake.
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Boxes sitting on a porch

You can clear out some clutter by recycling all the empty cardboard boxes in your home.

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Are you recycling your cardboard boxes? If you're like me, you always have a ton of boxes from receiving weekly meal kits or having lazy pizza nights. You might toss them into a recycling bin and never think about them again. But not all boxes and paper can be recycled.

Here's an example: the pizza boxes you've been "recycling" are actually getting thrown away by employees at the recycling center (more below). The same goes for the glossy wrapping paper you thought would be fine to put into the paper recycling. 

According to the St. Charles County recycling center, 1 billion trees' worth of paper is thrown in the trash annually, in the US alone. I spoke with some recycling experts and here's what I found about the right way to recycle paper and cardboard.

How to recycle cardboard

There's a right way to recycle your paper and cardboard. For example, you can recycle an Amazon box, but not a greasy pizza box. This is because the oils from the pizza saturate the cardboard, making it unrecyclable. It's not completely impossible to recycle contaminated boxes. A recycling center employee told CNET to cut out the part of the cardboard that has residue on it. You can place the soiled part in your compost bin.

Before you bring the cardboard to your nearest recycling center or put it in a bin for pickup, break the boxes down so that they're lying flat. This helps make more room in the bin and helps the recycling team to easily put the cardboard into their processing machines. Also, remove all contents from the inside, like bubble wrap.

Also, if you're placing cardboard into a recycling bin without a lid, make sure it's covered in case it rains. Wet cardboard can clog up the machines, causing an entire batch of cardboard to become contaminated.

If possible, remove the tape from the boxes before taking the cardboard to the recycling center, as well. Saving the employees a step can help make the recycling process more efficient.

The Environmental Protection Agency suggests checking with your local recycling provider for the proper way to recycle cardboard to ensure you're following their standards.

Paper towels on the table at home

Don't put used paper towels in the recycling bin.

James Martin/CNET

How to recycle paper

Just like cardboard, there are certain types of paper you shouldn't recycle. For example, the paper towel you used to wipe up spilled milk or gift wrap with a glossy finish. The EPA recommends looking for paper that has already been recycled when you go shopping so you know that the paper can be recycled again. 

When it comes time to recycle the paper you've used, avoid getting it wet as it reduces the value in the recycling market. Instead, keep it separate from other recyclables, like anything that could leak liquid. Also, wait until the morning of pickup to take the paper out to the curb if your bin doesn't have a lid to prevent it from becoming wet due to rain.

Also, many recycling companies won't accept shredded paper because it can get stuck in the machinery, so avoid shredding your paper. Instead, if there are confidential documents you want to recycle, like bank statements, use a marker to mark out important information.

What else can I do?

Recycling is one way to help reduce waste, but there are other ways to prevent it in the first place.

  • Limit your use of paper.
  • Reuse cardboard boxes or donate them to someone who will use them -- for example, someone who's moving.
  • See if the companies sending you boxes will take them back for reuse.
  • Reuse gift bags and tissue paper, and consider using paper gift wrap.