Is Cardboard Biodegradable? Is It Better to Recycle or Compost

biodegradable cardboard

Along with plastic, cardboard is a go-to form of packaging used all over the world. In fact, over 400 million metric tons of cardboard are used globally every year, with that number continuing to grow year on year. 

Available in an astonishing range of colors, sizes, and shapes, this is an extreme amount of cardboard to get through every year, leaving many of us with questions regarding the usage and disposal of the material.

One commonly asked question people have is, is cardboard biodegradable?

The fact you’ve stumbled across this post would suggest you also are asking this question. While it may seem like a simple question to answer, there are actually a few different factors to take into consideration.

Today, we’re going to answer this question amongst others for you. By the end, you should have a much better understanding of the disposal of cardboard, so make sure you stick around if you want to learn more!

So, Is Cardboard Biodegradable?

Let’s start by answering the main question you came here looking for the answer to. 

Simply put, yes, cardboard is biodegradable. If not recycled it will naturally degrade on its own. The reason cardboard is biodegradable is down to the materials used to make it. 

Standard cardboard boxes are made from plant-based materials. These plant-based materials are used to make paper and paper is used to make cardboard. We all know how biodegradable paper is so we can expect similar results from cardboard. 

How long cardboard takes to biodegrade is another question. We’ll answer that next!

How Long Does Cardboard Take To Biodegrade?

While you would think answering this question is pretty easy, there are actually a number of different factors that play a part. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look.

So, cardboard is made from paper which is a natural resource. Under the right conditions, paper will break down in approximately 2 months. However, cardboard is slightly different.

Due to cardboard usage as a storage container for high-value items and liquids such as milk, it is usually lined with wax. This is because standard paper has zero tolerance for water. 

This doesn’t stop cardboard boxes from being biodegradable but it does make it take longer. The wax slows down the whole process as the wax has to dissolve before the cardboard can start to biodegrade. 

Generally speaking, this process takes a long time and depends on exposure to weather conditions. As a result, we can expect it to take up to 5 years for cardboard to biodegrade. 

This leads to most cardboard being reused, recycled, or composted. We’ll look at both of these further down in this article, but for now, let’s see how the degrading process can be sped up.

How Can We Speed Up The Process?

Cardboard can be degraded quicker by giving the process help getting started. We can soak cardboard boxes in warm soapy water for a couple of minutes to decrease the amount of time it takes for the cardboard to break down. 

This helps break the material’s fiber down into smaller pieces. This makes it a lot easier for the microorganisms to target each piece of cardboard, making the cardboard break away faster.

biodegradable cardboard

Should We Recycle or Compost Cardboard?

Two ways of disposing of cardboard are recycling and composting. 

Both methods are relatively effective but they also both have a bad effect on our environment. 

This can make it hard to decide which method to use. More often than not, we have to pick the lesser of two evils, so which method of disposal is more sustainable?

Let’s look at the pros and cons of both!


One of the biggest problems the world faces right now is deforestation, with more forests being lost all the time as more cardboard is produced. 

Now, most people think that recycling cardboard solves the problem, and in some ways they’re right. By recycling cardboard, we have no need to cut down another tree, which is great.

However, what people don’t realize is that recycling cardboard creates another problem. 

Recycling plants in the United States are the biggest polluters of water. For every sheet produced, 10 liters of water are used and mixed with chemicals. 

Leftover, toxic pulp is then returned to the water. This water is the same source we drink from.


Thanks to the natural materials used to make cardboard, it is 100% compostable. This means it can be broken down by natural elements without leaving any harmful chemicals or toxins.

In fact, unbleached cardboard can actually be very beneficial when added to your compost heap. It can prevent the compost heap from getting stinky and add balance.

The nutrients released from the cardboard can then be used to feed our gardens. Conveniently, composting also reduces emissions that are associated with recycling.

These include:

  • The manufacturing of bins.
  • Machinery operation.
  • The building and operating of recycling plants.
  • Reduced need for transportation.
  • The need for chemicals.

So, if composting cardboard can do all this, why is it bad for the environment? Well, technically, composting isn’t bad for the environment, but what is, is the continued need for new cardboard. As a result, more and more trees will continue to be cut down. 

Unfortunately, this means that recycling is the better option. This is because cutting trees down is more harmful than the emissions used to recycle the material. 

Is Cardboard Eco Friendly?

Another tricky question to answer is whether cardboard is eco-friendly or not. 

Despite requiring the need for millions of trees to be cut down every year, cardboard is one of the most eco-friendly materials we use. The reason for this is because cardboard is made from paper which is a sustainable material.

Of course, cardboard is also biodegradable. 

When compared to the manufacturing of other materials like plastic, cardboard production sees a reduction in CO2 emissions and oil by up to 60%.

However, it could be argued that cardboard still isn’t good for the environment. Yes, it is sustainable and biodegradable, but as a result of the large amounts of cardboard we recycle every year and how many trees we cut down, the environment is suffering. Forests and wildlife are lost, and harmful toxins are released into the water during the recycling process.

biodegradable cardboard

Can Corrugated Cardboard Be Recycled?

Corrugated cardboard is a relatively new, innovative type of cardboard that has made packaging much easier. Designed from a method known as the fluting method, this makes it possible for cardboard boxes to carry virtually any weight. It should be able to do so without coming apart.

While this new product has been widely regarded as the next step in cardboard development, there are some groups of people that choose to shy away from it as they aren’t sure how recyclable it is. 

We’d like to tell you now, that there is nothing to worry about. Just like any other type of cardboard, corrugated cardboard is 100% recyclable. They are also biodegradable.

As a result of this, they are arguably the best type of cardboard we should use. Not only are they recyclable and biodegradable, but they are also much more durable. This gives us the opportunity to use the cardboard over and over again before having to produce any more. 

For obvious reasons, this is a great step forward.

Cardboard Facts You Should Know

Before we finish this post, we’d like to leave you with some mind-blowing facts about cardboard. These facts might make you think about how important it is that we protect our environment.

  • Approximately 80% of products sold in Europe and the United States are packaged in cardboard.
  • 400 billion square feet of cardboard is used every year.
  • An average household throws away 13,000 pieces of cardboard every year.
  • Approximately 1 billion trees are cut down every year to supply the United States with cardboard.
  • Cardboard and paper make up almost 40% of all solid waste.
  • Recycling one tonne of cardboard saves roughly 46 gallons of oil, 6.6 million Btus of energy, 17 trees, 9 cubic yards of landfill space, and 7,000 gallons of water.

Final Thoughts

One of the most used materials globally, cardboard is a material that causes great controversy and confusion. One being whether it is biodegradable or not.

In this post, we’ve shown you that cardboard is in fact biodegradable and that it can take anywhere from 2 months to 5 years to fully decompose. 

We’ve also taken a closer look at how we can recycle and compost cardboard, what the benefits of doing so are, the negative effects associated with cardboard, and how new innovative cardboard designs could change things in our favor. 

Now that you’ve made your way through our post, you should have a much clearer idea of what cardboard is, how it affects the environment, and how to dispose of it correctly.

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