There is no denying that cardboard is one of the most useful and durable materials, and arguably the most used in the UK. Cardboard gets used for a variety of purposes such as packaging, storage, and even jigsaw puzzles. As you can appreciate, people will want to ensure that cardboard can get recycled when they no longer need it. The good news is that cardboard is one of the most widely recyclable materials in the country.

But, even with that in mind, have you ever wondered exactly how does cardboard get recycled? Ponder that thought no more, because you’ll learn all about cardboard recycling in this handy blog post.

The six-stage cardboard recycling process

Virtually all local authorities across the United Kingdom offer some a cardboard recycling program of some description, whether it’s bi-weekly doorstop recycling or a local civic amenity site. Whichever way your cardboard gets taken from you for recycling, the process is the same wherever you are in the UK.

There are six stages to the cardboard recycling process:

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Stage 1: sorting and shredding

The first step in the six-stage recycling process is to sort and shred the cardboard. The right preparation must take place before all items can continue on the rest of the process.

When cardboard gets taken for recycling, there must be a distinction that takes place between thin cardboard and corrugated ones used for boxes. Sorting the cardboard is essential because there are so many different types of cardboard construction out there. And only some of those types can get recycled into particular products.

Once the cardboard gets sorted, it must then get shredded into smaller, more manageable pieces. After all, the recycling process for a 20-feet long sheet of cardboard can be challenging, whereas shredded cardboard is so much easier to handle for both machines and humans.

Did you know that some of the shredded cardboard is taken away and gets used as a recycled product in itself? Some companies sell “cardboard void filler” so consumers and businesses alike can better protect items in transport. As you might have guessed, the cardboard void filler is shredded cardboard.

Stage 2: pulping

When all the cardboard gets shredded, the next stage is to ‘pulp’ it. That means extracting the fibrous material from the shredded cardboard so that it can get transformed into a new type of cardboard product. The pulping stage involves pouring the shredded cardboard material into large vats of water and mixing it all.

The time it takes to pulp shredded cardboard can vary depending on the size of the tanks used for pulping.

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Stage 3: pulp filtration

Once the shredded cardboard gets turned into a broth of water and shredded cardboard, it becomes much easier to deal with further along the recycling process. When the pulp has been soaked long enough in the tanks, the next stage involves filtering the resulting mixture.

It’s essential to filter the pulp because there are always things contained on cardboard that must not get used further up the process. Examples include inks, dyes, and foreign materials like adhesive tape, staples and nails, plastic, wood and metal.

There are systems in place that help to separate such unwanted foreign items, like large magnets that help to pick out any metallic objects embedded in the pulp. Once the pulp completes the filtration process, it then gets stored until it gets needed for the other three stages of the cardboard recycling process.

Stage 4: pulp mixture enhancement

When the stored pulp is ready to get processed further up the chain, it first must undergo a stage similar to the first method of pulping. Additional water gets added to the pulp and then stirred and mixed, ensuring the pulp ends up with the right mixture and consistency for the type of final cardboard product it will eventually become.

In some cases, chemicals get added to the pulp-water mixture for additional characteristics such as extra rigidity or water resistance.

Stage 5: pulp treatment

After it has been determined that the pulp is of the right consistency and features any additional required characteristics, it must then get treated before it can become new cardboard products.

On average, the pulp will comprise around 90% water and so will require treatment before ending up at the last stage of the cardboard recycling process. The pulp treatment process can employ a wide variety of methods, such as vacuum rolling, vibrating conveyors, and even steam heating. Eventually, all the treated pulp will end up going through rollers so that it can start to look like the finished product. If there are requirements for extra-durable cardboard products, it’s at this stage where additional layers of pulp can get added to each rolled item.

Stage 6: the finished product

The last stage in the cardboard recycling process is creating the finished product. There are a plethora of options when it comes to creating new products, such as corrugated cardboard, double-wall cardboard, and so on.

At the sixth stage of the process, there are many long rolls of pressed cardboard, typically with a weight of several tonnes, that can now get further processed into specific sizes and formats according to manufacturing requirements. 

When there is a need for corrugated cardboard, the central sections get processed through rollers with teeth to create the crinkled look.

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Why it makes sense to recycle cardboard

Householders and businesses alike should recycle as much cardboard as possible for several reasons. For a start, it means that fewer cardboard products have to get manufactured from ‘virgin’ sources (i.e. trees).

Another reason is that landfill sites won’t fill up as quickly if all cardboard got recycled. If the UK population only used cardboard manufactured from virgin sources, there wouldn’t be enough trees in the British Isles to sustain cardboard production. So, even from only a purely manufacturing point of view, it makes perfect sense to use recycled cardboard.

When it comes to quality and durability, recycled cardboard is just as well-performing as products made from pulped wood.