Profiles in Garbage: Corrugated Boxes

Corrugated boxes (also known as old corrugated containers or OCC) are used to ship more than 90 percent of all products to factories, warehouses, retail stores, offices and homes. Corrugated packaging is the largest segment of the packaging industry, with more than 1,600 plants producing corrugated boxes.

Corrugated boxes have a fluted inner layer that is sandwiched between layers of linerboard. The term “double-lined kraft” refers to cuttings generated from the manufacturing of corrugated containers. Corrugated boxes are mistaken for cardboard boxes, which do not have a fluted inner layer or as much strength.

The extensive use of corrugated boxes in the U.S. economy makes them the largest waste stream component by weight. But their easy recyclability makes them the most recycled product by weight. Corrugated's market share of municipal solid waste (MSW) has increased by more than 50 percent since 1960. Its recycling rate doubled during the same period.

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

OCC Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts:


  • 29.8 million tons or 13.5% of MSW by weight.*
  • 220.4 pounds per person per year.
  • By weight, OCC is the largest item in MSW.
  • 10% of OCC is generated at homes and 90% at businesses.


  • 20.9 million tons, for a 70.3% recycling rate.*
  • 22.8 million tons, for a 70.1% recovery rate in 1999 (industry data).
  • By tonnage, OCC is the most recycled product in MSW.

Recycled Content:

  • Varies by box plant, but generally less than 40%.


  • If shredded properly, corrugated boxes are compostable.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 8.8 million tons or 5.6% of discarded MSW by weight.*
  • Corrugated boxes have a per pound heating value of 7,047 Btus (a pound of MSW has 4,500 Btus to 5,000 Btus).
  • OCC is the fourth largest item in the disposal system by weight.

Landfill Volume:

  • 26.32 million cubic yards or 6.2% of landfilled MSW.*
  • By volume, OCC is the second largest item in landfills.


  • Landfilled corrugated boxes weigh 750 pounds per cubic yard.
  • Loose, unbaled OCC has a density of 50 pounds per cubic yard to 100 pounds per cubic yard.
  • Loose, unbaled, stacked OCC has a density of 350 pounds per cubic yard.
  • Baled OCC has a density of 1,000 to 1,200 pounds per cubic yard.

Source Reduction:

Lightweight linerboard has resulted in a 10% to 15% weight reduction in the past decade. However, compression, stacking strength and burst tests limit the ability to reduce the weight of corrugated boxes. Heavy use of recycled content fibers can increase the weight of a corrugated box to meet these test requirements. Some corrugated boxes can be reused before recycling.

Recycling Markets:

The primary market for OCC is the paperboard industry, which uses OCC for corrugated medium, linerboard, recycled paperboard and other paper products. In 1999, 2.2 million tons of OCC were exported and provided 26% of the wastepaper that was exported.

End-Market Specifications:

Corrugated containers are covered by Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) Paper Stock Guidelines No. 11 (Corrugated Containers). These specifications are for baled OCC with no more than 5% outthrows and 1% prohibited materials. Cleaner grades include No. 12 (Double sorted Corrugated) and No. 13 (New Double-Lined Kraft Corrugated Cuttings).

OCC contaminants include wax coatings, plastics, chipboard, mill wrappers, food and garbage. There also are contaminated boxes called “yellow corrugated.” This box is yellowish in color and weaker than other corrugated boxes because it is made from heavily recycled fibers that have lost much of their fiber length and, as a result, much of their strength.

Recycling Cost and Value:

Most curbside programs do not collect OCC because it is randomly generated by households, and is heavy and bulky. OCC commonly is collected from large-scale commercial generators such as grocery stores and retail stores.

Processing costs range from $20.29 per ton to $56.26 per ton at materials recovery facilities (MRFs) that handle commingled residential recyclables. MRFs processing commercially generated wastepaper will achieve lower costs due to economies of scale.

Chaz Miller is director of state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.


American Forest and Paper Association, 1999. Website:

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 1998,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste, 2000, Washington, D.C. Website:

Corrugated Packaging Council, 1999. Website:

Fibre Box Association, 1999. Website:

National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria Va., Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines. Website:

National Solid Wastes Management Association's Waste Recyclers Council Processing and Collection Cost Studies, Washington, D.C.

“Scrap Specifications Circular 1998,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C.

*U.S. EPA 1998 Estimates