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Why It’s More Important than You Think to Break Down Your Cardboard

Breaking down your cardboard for recycling is one of those things that everybody knows to do, but which frequently fails in its goal because people take the act itself for granted. If you’re like a lot of folks, you love the environment, but you’re also just trying to keep up…with the semester, work demands, wedding planning, the kids, the DMV, the IRS…you name it. As long as the box doesn’t look exactly square anymore and you can cram it in the bin, surely that’s good enough?

Why “Good Enough” Often Isn’t

Tell us if this sounds familiar: You wrench open the top and bottom tape lines and give a good hand crush, you’re good to go? The point is to make sure everything fits and the lid can shut on the bin, right? Sorry to break the bad news to you. Too often, this isn’t good enough. The problem has to do with what makes cardboard such a great material for storage and moving boxes in the first place. Its unique I-beam and truss-like structure provides an incredible amount of strength without being so rigid that it’s brittle under pressure. Thus, cardboard can protect what’s inside of it without being overly vulnerable to damage itself. Why does this matter?

Oddly enough, it’s the combination of this tried-and-true material with modern-day recycling collection technologies that require that extra step when recycling cardboard. What do modern collection methods have to do with it? The day of two-person teams and manually operated lifts are rapidly giving way to one-person drivers with fully automated mechanical arm lifts. Instead of loading the trash and recycling bins by their top handles, these massive pincher arms grab the cans and bins wholesale and lift and dump, before re-depositing. This lateral pressure squeezes the plastic bin and can easily grab at the walls of cardboard that’s only been partially broken or which has been overstuffed laterally across the bin.

Everyday Realities for Businesses, Residents, and Municipal Workers

For obvious reasons, retailers and shippers are primarily concerned with the safe and effective delivery of their goods. As it should be. The benefit of breaking down and recycling cardboard doesn’t compare with the cost of replacing damaged items with a new shipment. Yet, the cost of failing to breakdown your cardboard isn’t insignificant. We talked to one of our team members about his personal experience:

“Coming home from work one day, I ran into the city’s recycling collection employee. He was out of the truck and picking my cardboard up off the curb. I made an earnest apology, explaining that I had ripped up my boxes and that the lid closed. He graciously explained that the pincher arms have a tendency to grab cardboard that’s stuffed laterally as well. What left an impression on me wasn’t just that the cardboard didn’t release from the recycling bin, but that the city employee talked like it happened all the time.”

It does seem like this is a bigger issue than most people realize. No question, automated trucks are safer than multi-person crews and manual loading. Nevertheless, frequent stops and dismounts, due to cardboard boxes that don’t release into the truck, inevitably increase the chances of serious injury to city workers. Of course, instead of ending up on the sidewalk, the cardboard can also get completely lodged inside the bin, and now the resident has that much less space to recycle the following week.

A New Problem that’s Only Getting Worse

Closetbox has pointed it out—as have other industry experts here and here—home delivery services of all kinds are taking off. Between Amazon Prime, other e-commerce outlets, and weekly delivery of food or meal kits from the local grocer/farm co-op, there’s a serious amount of leftover cardboard being generated in homes all across the country. Sure, there are all kinds of creative things you can do with used cardboard. Nevertheless, without recycling, most people couldn’t begin to keep up with the cardboard boxes that appear at their home on a regular basis.

Modern Municipal Recycling Systems

More and more cities are recognizing the long-term cost savings of implementing a partially automated fleet of trash and recycling collection trucks. These savings can allow cities to put more resources toward sustainable energy, other recycling programs, and community development at large. Larger cans also tend to improve recycling participation rates.

Thus, these automated trucks and mechanical arms are a net positive in pretty much every place they’re used, but they still don’t run themselves. And there’s almost always room for further improvement. Even with the vast majority of people knowing they’re supposed to break down cardboard, imperfect practice is inevitable and recycling route times and injury rates are bound to be less than optimal as a result. Check out what’s going on with recycling collection programs in cities around the country, and what it can teach us about the best recycling practices.  

  • Boston, MA: Wondering what these single-team collection warriors are doing to increase the efficacy of your local recycling program? You’ll want to check out this story about Boston’s North Attleborough recycling route.
  • Chicago, IL: You know how you hear those stories about how recycled items end up in landfills? Before blaming the city, you and your neighbors may need to look in the mirror. Knowing what you shouldn’t recycle can be just as important as knowing what you should.
  • Arlington, TX: More than buying a new fleet of trucks, these modern and semi-automated recycling programs are most effective when people know what to do. Collection information needs to be complete, yet easily digestible. This guide from Arlington, TX is one of the best examples we’ve seen.
  • Haverhill, MA: One of the oft-cited claims about automated collection trucks and larger bins is that people will recycle more. In just one recent example, Haverhill saw a 20 percent jump in the amount of recyclables being collected. Total savings in the first year of operation? Half a million dollars.
  • Albany, NY: Looking for some hard data that supports the idea that automated collection trucks make sense, financially and environmentally? Check out this analysis of the new system in Albany, NY. The city is going from three-person crews to single-person operators. And helping to cover the upfront costs of the $230,000 trucks? The New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
  • Grand Junction, CO: Even modestly sized cities can frequently find a way to make automated trucks work for them. Grand Junction uses a single-truck, multi-compartment system that eliminates multiple service routes—but which greatly depends on residents’ willingness to break down their cardboard.

Get to know your own local recycling program and city workers. Chances are you’ll discover that—more than just recycling your cardboard—it’s more important than you think to completely break down your boxes before tossing them in the bin.

Reduce and Reuse, then Recycle

An even better option than breaking down your cardboard? Finding a way to reuse the boxes instead. We know life has a tendency to get in the way, and you may not have time to get all crafty with your leftover cardboard. That said, there are also more pragmatic ways to reuse cardboard boxes. Maybe you know you’ll need cardboard boxes in a few months, but don’t have room to store them? Rather than wrenching open the boxes with your hands, make a clean cut with a knife, and you can likely reuse any boxes that are in good condition.

And if you’re just moving in to a new place, asking the neighbors if they know anybody who needs boxes is as good a way as any to break the ice. As part of our reasonably priced, eco-friendly, full-service storage, we encourage our customers to find free moving boxes in their community.