Profiles in Garbage: Corrugated Boxes

Corrugated boxes (also known as old corrugated containers or OCC) are the largest segment of the packaging industry. More than 90 percent of all products shipped to factories, warehouses, retail stores, offices and homes are packaged in corrugated containers.

More than 1,600 box plants produce corrugated boxes. Often mistaken for cardboard boxes, corrugated boxes are easily recognizable by their fluted inner layer that is sandwiched between two layers of linerboard.

The term "double- lined kraft" refers to the cuttings generated from manufacturing corrugated containers.

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

OCC Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts: Generated: * 30.2 million tons or 13.9% of MSW by weight.*

* 223.8 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.*

Recycled: * 20.3 million tons, for a 67.3% recycling rate.*

* 22.5 million tons, for a 73% recovery rate in 1997 (industry data).

* By tonnage, OCC is the most recycled product in MSW.*

Recycled Content: * 37% for corrugated boxes produced in the United States.

Composted: * If shredded properly, corrugated boxes are compostable.

Incinerated or Landfilled: * 9.9 million tons or 6.3% of discarded MSW by weight.*

* Corrugated boxes have a per pound heating value of 7,047 Btus (a pound of MSW has 4,500-5,000 Btus).

* OCC is the third 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 largest item in landfills.*

Density: * Landfilled corrugated boxes weigh 750 pounds per cubic yard.*

* Loose, unbaled OCC has a density of 50 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: Light weighting linerboard resulted in a 10% to 15% weight reduction in the past decade. However, compression, stacking strength and burst tests limit the ability of lightweight corrugated boxes. Heavy use of recycled content fibers can increase the weight of a corrugated box in order 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 a corrugated medium, linerboard, recycled paperboard and other paper products. In 1997, 2.4 million tons of OCC were exported, and provided 30 percent of exported wastepaper.

End-Market Specifications: Corrugated containers are covered by Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) 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 type 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's randomly generated by households, and is heavy and bulky. OCC is commonly collected from large-scale commercial generators such as grocery stores and retail stores.

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

American Forest and Paper Association, 1999. Website:

"Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1998 Update," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Office of Solid Waste, 1999, 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 Waste Management Association's Waste Recyclers Council Processing and Collection Cost Studies, Washington, D.C.

Resource Recycling Technologies, Out of Operation

"Scrap Specifications Circular 1998," ISRI, Washington, D.C.