Old Corrugated Cardboard Recycling

The recycling of cardboard faces new challenges

Man carrying an armload of cardboard to the recycling bin.

Stephanie Grewel / Getty Images

Very often, recycling and waste haulers use the term OCC in reference to cardboard. The term "cardboard" refers to post-use corrugated packaging material. Industry insiders know this product as Old Corrugated Cardboard/Containers (OCC)

Corrugated cardboard can easily be recognized by its multiple layer structure. The fluted or wavy middle layer between the sheets of paper keeps corrugated board light but gives it the strength it needs to carry products. Cardboard is a very useful packaging material and is used for many different types of products.

If OCC is kept dry and clean, recycling is straightforward as long as all non-paper materials such as bubble wrap, wood skids, plastic bags, plastic wrapping, and Styrofoam are removed.

Corrugated Cardboard Production and Recycling Statistics

According to the American Forest & Paper Association, paper and paperboard were recovered for domestic and export use at a record rate of 67.2% in 2016. For OCC, the rate is a much more impressive 92.9% in 2015, according to the Corrugated Packaging Alliance, also a record high. On average, a corrugated box contains roughly 50% recycled fiber. Around 51% of OCC is used to make new corrugated board, with 11.5% used for boxboard materials, such as cereal boxes. Around 32% of recycled OCC is exported.

The recovery rate for OCC jumped from 72% in 2006 to 89.5% in 2014, according to the Corrugated Packaging Alliance. As more is recovered, less goes to landfill. This reduction results in lower methane emissions. The corrugated industry reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 35% between 2006 and 2014 as a result of increased recycling of OCC and its use as a fuel in place of fossil fuels. 

The size and type of business can have a strong bearing on the OCC generation. Studies suggest that this material can represent as much as 40% or more of solid waste in a retail establishment and 15% or more of solid waste generated in an office setting. A small convenience store is estimated to produce between 700-1000 lbs of OCC per month, while grocery supermarkets generate between 8-30 tons, and department stores 8-20 tons during that time span. 

Benefits of OCC Recycling

There are a number of benefits to recycling OCC instead of discarding it. Recycling OCC reduces energy and water usage while cutting the production of greenhouse gas and certain air pollutants like total reduced sulfur (TRS), volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), and hazardous air pollutants (HAP). The recycling cardboard also reduces the demand for virgin timber. It takes approximately three tons of trees to manufacture just one ton of virgin cardboard. Recycling helps reduce waste tipping fees as well. The recycling of one ton of cardboard saves more than nine cubic yards of landfill space.

Methods of Handling OCC

Before being placed in the storage containers, however, corrugated boxes should be opened and flattened. As well, harmful contaminants must be removed. This ensures better space utilization as well as that the material is clean and ready for recycling. Ensure that the container is accessible to haulers for pickup.

To bale or not to bale is an important decision in OCC recycling. For small businesses that generate a comparatively small amount of OCC, bundling OCC manually, storing the loose OCC in a suitable container and having it collected by a hauler is ideal. On the other hand, businesses that generate a large amount of OCC should use large storage containers and then compact or bale it using an industrial baler for the efficient transportation of OCC to recycling centers. One newer technology is the use of shredding in combination with compaction or baling to increase the density of material for transport.

Old Corrugated Cardboard Recycling Process

The recycling of corrugated containers is straightforward. It involves diverting old cardboard from the waste stream, the elimination of contaminants, and the flattening or compressing of material to promote ease of handling, storing, and transportation. The OCC material is delivered to a paper production mill or processor where it is processed into different paper products such as recycled paperboard, the center fluting of corrugated boxes, and as unbleached kraft paperboard.

Selling OCC

Depending on the amount of OCC generated, the selling relationship will vary. Large generators may deal directly with paper companies, while mid-level generators may deal with recycling companies, and very small generators may sell to smaller operators acting to aggregate material for sale. No matter how much OCC is generated, it is important to recycle.

Guarding Against Theft

In recent years, there have been increased reports of cardboard or OCC theft, and steps can be taken to reduce the risk of OCC theft, such as storing it in a secure area. 

The Impact of China's Recycling Restrictions and E-Commerce

Increasingly tight restrictions imposed by China on foreign scrap imports have dampened markets for recycled content in general. OCC is one of the categories impacted. At the same time, the continued growth of e-commerce has resulted in more home deliveries in corrugated containers, and increased OCC generation in city recycling programs, posing new challenges for recycling.