9 Reuse ideas for Cardboard in a Zero Waste Home

My thoughts on cardboard use, reuse, and recycling, through the interview questions of a cardboard manufacturer.






How important do you feel reusing recyclable materials like cardboard is today?

For the sake of the environment, it is important to prioritize reusing before recycling. The recycling process takes energy and resources; that loss can be avoided with reusing. In reducing our waste, our plastic consumption has been almost completely stopped (the only plastic product we buy on a regular basis is my husband's contact lens solution). Thanks to its weight and recyclability, cardboard has replaced many of the plastic items that we used to buy. For example, our kids use cardboard school binders instead of the laminated kind. 


Would you personally prefer to recycle cardboard in the conventional way (e.g. using local recycling facilities), or would you rather find a way to repurpose the cardboard for something else around the house? 

To lead a Zero Waste lifestyle, my family applies 5R's in order (Refuse-Reduce-Reuse-Recycle-Rot). Reuse precedes Recycle, so we prefer to repurpose the cardboard that we cannot first Refuse or Reduce. 


Do you think people today make enough of an effort to reuse and recycle in general?

Your question is timely. I visited a waste transfer station last weekend and watched people unload cars and trucks full of (what they consider) "rubbish". The material that jumped out at me as being the most prevalent and yet, widely recyclable, is cardboard. Our society makes it too easy to underestimate the value of our planet's resources but consumers need, and can easily, rise above this needless waste. 


What would be your top tips for reusing cardboard? Are there any specific things cardboard can be used for in the home?

Broken cardboard school binder dismantled for reuse
Since we exclusively buy food in bulk from the health food store and  buy household goods secondhand mostly from the thrift store, the little cardboard that makes its way into our home is from our kids' school binders and toilet paper rolls. We also receive boxes from products that we've sent to manufacturers for repair and eBay purchases (we use this site for specific items and request shipping materials to be cardboard or paper). If we don't have cardboard on hand and need some, we go dumpster diving!

Here are ways to reuse cardboard in a Zero Waste Home:

Shipping something: When you receive a parcel, put the box aside to use for your own mailings. After all, your purchase likely paid for it, so why not reuse it instead of buying a new one at the post office? I have dedicated a spot for this in my office to make it easy and automatic to reuse the ones I get. The trick here is to not get overboard: Only keep a handful, and reuse the rest in other ways (see below) or donate them. In the US, UPS accepts them, along with bubble wrap and other packing materials, for reuse.

Padding a parcel: Speaking of mailing... Cardboard can also be cut to the size of an object to protect it during shipping. It is a durable and sustainable alternative to bubble wrap or plastic-padded envelopes (to emulate the latter, simply slide two pieces of cardboard in a paper envelope!).

Craft making: Why buy card stock when the very same material sits in your recycling bin? Our family no longer buys or stores art materials at home. When we need some for a school project, we reach into our recycling bin and use whatever bits of paper or cardboard we can find. And if a teacher asks for a poster board, we unfold and cut a box to size.

Packing for a move: If you're planning an upcoming move, start collecting large boxes in a spare room now. If not, make the ones you still have from your last move, available to others by posting them on a classified ad (on Craigslist for example). People who pack for a move themselves are desperate to find free boxes and would be happy to make use of yours. 

Moving furniture: Rather than carrying heavy pieces of furniture, set them on cardboard and slide them around. This will save your hardwood floors, and more important your back! 

Donating your stuff: Our household has been refusing plastic and paper bags since 2008, so when time comes to donate the kids overgrown clothing, we keep an eye out for a cardboard box to pack and transport our donation to a local charity. Boxes are much sturdier than bags, and with their flaps paper-taped up, I can pack them high and tight!

Protecting your floor: Whether you need to protect your floor from a paint job, heavy traffic during a remodel, or your toddler's food throwing skills, cover the area with unfolded cardboard boxes. But remember: if food comes in contact with cardboard, it's best to compost it (vs. recycling it).

Storing your stuff: Before the digital age, shoe boxes collected family photos, but cardboard boxes of different sizes are still predominantly reused for storing things. Don't underestimate other cardboard forms though: your empty toilet paper roll can too serve you well. Keep spare extension cords neat and tidy by coiling and sliding them into separate rolls.

Playing pretend: Give a child an empty cardboard box and you'll open a whole imaginary world for him/her. It can be more than a house or a rocket ship: my son's friend, Camilla, once went to a costume party dressed as a gift! And this B-boy would use it to start off breaking battle;)


What cardboard item can't you avoid, and how do you reuse it?