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Profiles in Garbage: Corrugated Boxes

Though affected by the recession, corrugated boxes thrive due to online shopping.

Corrugated boxes are named for the fluted inner layer that is sandwiched between layers of linerboard. Corrugated boxes 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 1,500 box plants in North America.

Paper recyclers refer to “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 from the manufacturing of corrugated containers.

The extensive use of corrugated boxes in the American economy makes them the biggest manufactured product in the waste stream by weight. Fortunately, OCC is easily recyclable, which also makes it the most recycled product by weight and greatly diminishes the amount sent to disposal. Since 1960, OCC generation increased by 271 percent, while its MSW market share increased by 35 percent, its recycling rate more than doubled and its disposal share decreased by close to one half. While, the recent recession lowered OCC production, OCC has benefitted from the rise in online shopping due to the need for more small shipping boxes.

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

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


Corrugated Boxes MSW Facts*


  •  27.2 million tons, or 11.2% by weight.
  • 171.1 pounds per person per year.
  • 31.7 million tons per year according to industry data.


  •  22.1 million tons, a 81.3% recycling rate.
  •  6.9 million tons, or a 85.1% recycling rate (2010 industry figures).

Recycled Content:

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


  • Compostable if shredded properly.

Burned or Landfilled:

  • 5.1 million tons, or 3.2% 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:

  • 60% goes into corrugated medium or linerboard.
  • 21% is exported.
  • 15% goes into 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, www.afandpa.org and http://stats.paperrecycles.org

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: 2009 Facts and Figures,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, www.epa.gov/osw

Corrugated Packaging Council, www.corrugated.org

Fibre Box Association, www.fibrebox.org

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recyling Coalition, Washington, www.nrc-recycle.org

Scrap Specifications Circular, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, www.isri.org

* Data is from 2009 EPA estimates, except where noted.



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