Profiles in Garbage: Corrugated Boxes

Corrugated boxes are the most recycled product by weight.

Corrugated boxes are named  for the fluted inner layer that is sandwiched between layers of linerboard. They need to be impact, drop, and vibration-damage resistant, while still being light enough to ship products. Corrugated packaging is the largest segment of the packaging industry, with more than 1,300 manufacturing plants in North America.

Paper recyclers call used corrugated boxes “old corrugated containers” or “OCC.” Consumers often mistakenly call them “cardboard boxes.” Those boxes, however, do not have a fluted inner layer and lack the strength of a corrugated box. “Double-lined kraft” refers to cuttings generated during OCC manufacturing.

The extensive use of OCC in the American economy makes them the biggest manufactured product in the waste stream by weight. Easily recyclable, it also is the most recycled product by weight, greatly diminishing the amount sent to disposal. Since 1960, OCC generation increased by 296 percent; its MSW market share increased by 27 percent. Its recycling rate increased by almost 150 percent and its disposal share decreased by 55 percent. Box production has rebounded from the recent recession, benefitting in part from the need for smaller shipping boxes by online merchants.

While some corrugated boxes are made of plastic, this profile is limited to paper boxes.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington. E-mail him at: [email protected]


Corrugated Boxes Facts*


  •  29.05 million tons, or 11.6% by weight.
  •  188 pounds per person per year.
  •  31.9 million tons per year according to 2011 industry data.


  •  24.7 million tons, a 85% recycling rate.
  •  29.1 million tons, or a 91.2% recycling rate (2011 industry figures).

Recycled Content:

  • 43% in 2006.
  • Corrugated medium usually has more recycled content than linerboard.


  •  Compostable if shredded properly.

Burned or Landfilled:

  • 4.36 million tons, or 2.6% of discarded MSW by weight.
  • 7,047 Btus per pound, compared to 4,500-5,000 Btus for MSW.
  • The third largest disposed-of product by weight.

Landfill Volume:

  •  26.3 million cubic yards, 6.2% of landfilled MSW in 1997.
  •  The second largest item in landfills by volume.


  • Landfilled OCC weighs 750 lbs. per cubic yard (lbs/cu.yd.).
  • Loose, unbaled OCC weighs 50-100 lbs/cu.yd.
  • Loose, unbaled, stacked OCC weighs 350 lbs/cu.yd.
  • Baled OCC weighs 1,000-1,200 lbs/cu.yd.

Source Reduction:

  •  10% to 15% weight reduction in last decade due to linerboard lightweighting.
  •  Compression, stacking strength and burst tests limit the ability to lightweight corrugated boxes. Heavy use of recycled fibers can increase box weight to meet these tests.

Recycling Markets:

  •  Using OCC to make corrugated medium or linerboard is the largest market.
  •  Exports are next followed by using OCC to make recycled paperboard.

End Market Specifications:

  •  ISRI Paper Stock Guidelines #11 (Corrugated Containers), #12 (Double-sorted Corrugated) and #13 (New Double-Lined Kraft Corrugated Cuttings).
  •  Contaminants include wax coatings, plastics, chipboard, mill wrappers.



American Forest and Paper Association, and

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2010,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste,

Corrugated Packaging Alliance,

Fibre Box Association,

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recyling Coalition, Washington,
Scrap Specifications Circular, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington,

*Data is from 2010 EPA estimates, except where noted.





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