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?

42 comments:

  1. I love this! We reuse cardboard in all the ways that you mentioned. Boxes are an extremely hot commodity in our house since they get made into boats, houses, cars, airplanes, etc. I really love that our boys can create endless play with boxes and other cardboard items. It's also nice that they can be recycled once they are too worn for play. Cardboard boxes can also be made into awesome pet beds (just add an old pillow) or cat scratchers.

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    1. Anonymous5/30/2014

      Amen! when our kids were little we'd occasionally swing by a local appliance store and find an empty refrigerator box to use for make believe.

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  2. Anonymous5/30/2014

    I like that you mentioned school projects! Don't forget that teachers can often find lots of uses for toilet paper rolls! If you don't mind saving them up, a gift of 30 at once is especially appreciated.

    Also, instead of grocery bags or tote bags,I use a nice big sturdy cardboard produce box with handles for grocery shopping. I leave the box in the trunk of my car and put it in a shopping cart when I get to the store.


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  3. Anonymous5/30/2014

    I teach high school science and I have a stack of several large rectangular sheets of cardboard that I have cut from used shipping boxes that I have students use instead of poster board. For each assignment, they recover the cardboard with the plain sides of paper scavenged from the recycle bin in the teachers' copy room. After they are graded, we break everything down to return the materials to the recycling bins. I also have several colors of modeling clay that students use to make models of cells, parts of the human body, etc. that we have been using and reusing for years. Combining that width students submitting all of their work online and i am getting close to a zero waste classroom!

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    1. Great idea about using cardboard instead of poster board!

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    2. I wish you were my kid's science teacher. :)

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  4. The idea of storing electronic cords in toilet paper rolls is such a good one! I love cardboard boxes - I do all of my closet organizing in them, rather than buying expensive plastic/metal organizers.

    As someone who works in a small business with a shipping department, I can say that such businesses save a lot of money by reusing packing materials of all kinds (cardboard boxes, peanuts, paper, Styrofoam, bubblewrap). If you want to donate your packing materials in such a way as to help the local economy, rather than just giving them to UPS, please consider asking at local retailers if they could use your boxes, etc.

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  5. Here are more good uses for cardboard. If you want to store long electrical cords or strings of xmas lights without tangling, take a sturdy piece of cardboard. Cut a small notch for holding the plug, and then wrap the cord around the cardboard.

    My sons are really hard on their furniture, so I gave up on buying storage bins for their toys, Instead I use printer boxes, I trim one side down so it's easier to see inside the boxes (there are pictures on my blog at http://miser-mom.blogspot.com/2013/07/bricolage-update.html). It figures that these (ugly but free) boxes have outlasted all the nice-looking ones we'd paid for before!

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  6. Nerissa5/30/2014

    Having a cat opens so many possibilities for reusing cardboard. We have never had to purchase a scratching post or pad, because I make them for her from strips of cardboard:
    http://www.designsponge.com/2009/01/diy-project-recycled-cardboard-kitty-pad.html
    We also get a fortnightly delivery of organic produce in a cardboard box, which we either return, or make a little den for her and switch it out occasionally (she tends to chew on the corners and destroy it).

    Bea, I would love to hear more about zero waste art-making. Do you still paint? It seems nearly impossible to avoid some kind of (plastic) waste when making art- all those little paint tubes and synthetic brushes etc. I haven't got around to reading your book so maybe you've written more about it there, but do you plan on blogging about it in the future?

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    1. I do have a whole section in my book about art making, but I coincidently have planned to post my latest piece with the butter wrappers that I mention

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    2. I've been looking forward to that! ;)

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  7. Anonymous5/31/2014

    We used to refer to the "$29.99 Fisher-Price Cardboard Box" toy for our children! Cardboard boxes and five-gallon buckets were a real hit with our kids. But my favorite toy for my youngest was a carved walking stick picked up at a flea market---it became a guitar, a magic wand, something to wave as he danced, a horse,.............

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  8. The paths between rows in my vegetable garden are covered in cut down cardboard boxes. It suppresses weeds and protects my shoes from our rather clayey soil.

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    1. Anonymous5/31/2014

      THANK YOU! I was going to skip the garden this year, tired of fighting weeds. Now I can't wait till morning!

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    2. I just did the same this year as well! I also use newspaper.

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  9. I didn't realize it as a child but my mom was an avid recycler back in the 60's. She'd save every 5x7 piece of tag board from a package of panty hose and then she'd save the panty hose when they got a run in them. We had onions stored in knotted panty hose all over the garage. I use TP and paper towel empty rolls for fire starters. Just pack them with dryer lint and they make great kindling.

    I think one of the better movements going on now days (at least in Austin, TX) is Green Apartment Complexes. My daughter lives in one and surprisingly she's begun recycling a lot. When she was living at home I was constantly going behind her picking things out of the trash to put in the recycling. The more we get our communities on board the easier and cheaper it will get for us. So proud of the Gen X'ers.

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  10. These are great ideas. I love the one about organizing cords with the toilet paper rolls. I like to use cardboard paper boxes my husband gets from his office. I store my kids' clohes and other things as they are being cycled out for the season or ready to be consigned.

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  11. Anonymous5/31/2014

    I own an Etsy business, so I need packaging to mail my products. I team up with a local business (whose landlord does not provide a recycling program for the business) and they give me their retail boxes. These boxes are only used to ship small breakables from the warehouse to that individual shop. (very wasteful process) The business would then otherwise throw all these perfect boxes in the trash. I also encourage my shoppers to reuse and recycle the packaging that I have mailed them instead of tossing it.
    Side note: your book also made me question ALL of my packaging for my products and orders. I have reduced quite a bit and swapped 'toss-ables' for reuse-ables and recyclables.
    I reuse my cardboard in other ways as well, and I am really appreciative of this topic and all the ideas everyone has shared. I look forward to being more creative with my reuse. :D

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  12. I've been tearing apart and composting my tp rolls for a couple of months now. Our small backyard compost needed more brown in it.

    I used big cardboard boxes as a mulch last year and I was surprised by how much it changed the composition of the soil.

    Also, we use our sturdy cardboard food boxes as slide out "drawers" on shelves for storage. If one gets beat up by use or kids, no problem, just hunt for a box close to the same dimensions the next time we get a food or amazon delivery. I find that the neutral color is aesthetically pleasing as well.

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  13. I get great satisfaction from being as creative as I can to ship my son's used college books when I sell them. Not once have I needed to purchase anything to ship them. :)

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  14. Hi Bea,
    a couple of other uses for cardboard - I make firestarters out of toilet rolls by folding them in half lengthwise and stuffing about 6 inside another toilet roll. I think some people also melt leftover candlewax and run it into the rolls. We have a fire going about six months of the year, so it's really important to find ways to avoid the toxic firestarters. I collect pine cones and gum twigs all year round too.
    I also use cardboard boxes in the garden - unfold and remove all tape, then lay down on the grass to start no-dig garden beds. You put manure,mulch etc... on top of the cardboard and it kills the grass underneath. You can then dig holes through the rotting cardboard and plant trees,shrubs etc...or plant potatoes under the straw. By the time the potatoes are ready you will have beautiful soil underneath with no digging! Plenty of good instructions for how to do this on the internet.

    Have a great day,

    Madeleine.

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  15. I work at an animal shelter and the bunnies, guinea pigs, dogs and cats love to play with toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, cardboard boxes and cardboard egg crates/drink carriers. For dogs, an added enrichment is putting a couple of treats inside the paper towel rolls and closing off the ends - they love pulling them apart. I have tons of friends and family collecting in their homes so that our little guys never go without toys.

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  16. Hear, hear about Toilet Paper Roll Cat Toys! My two four-legged "beasts" LOVE the rolls! The rolls roll, make a noise, have holes on both ends through which to poke their paws...and the rolls eventually fall apart, which the author of the book "Cat Sense" says is a cat's favorite kind of toy- mimics eating a disintegrating mouse (or some such) In short: we cant' avoid the toilet paper rolls in our house...but they get ample reuse before the shredded strips go into the recycling bin. ("Meow!") >^..^<

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  17. This sort of mixes "reuse" and "rot," but instead of buying trays for seedlings, you can turn toilet paper tubes into seedling pots.

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  18. Anonymous6/02/2014

    made zipper pencil cases with toilet roll cardboard :)

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  19. Anonymous6/02/2014

    We use our toilet roll tubes as plant pots for our beans/carrots/sweetcorn. When transplanting, the roots don't get disturbed because the whole tube goes in the ground.

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  20. Love this post, Bea! Thank you for all the ideas on how we can reuse cardboard.

    I save all our toilet paper rolls (and many other leftover paper rolls and boxes) for my 7-year-old nephew to transform into buildings, toys and other creative things. He loves them and they really inspire his imagination. I even wrote a blog post about how we made toys together out of old materials on Black Friday. http://superfrug.com/super-frugal-black-friday/

    Thanks again for this great blog! Love to read it.

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  21. Love this post, thank you! It's great to finally read about someone else who tries to reuse cardboard! I shout at others in the house "I hope you're not putting that card in the bin!!" The rest of the house think I'm nuts.
    I turn toilet rolls into plant pots for peas: http://pocket-green.com/2014/06/04/green-thought-1-bloom/
    :)

    Keep up the good work! Leanne

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  22. hello,, i'm just visit,, have a nice day :D

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  23. Looks like Germany is making a first step towards zero-waste, or at least these brilliant women are facilitating easier shopping for current zero-wasters.
    http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/05/24/berlins-getting-zero-waste-grocery-store?cmpid=organic-share-twitter

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  24. Recycling paper/cardboard requires a significant chemical and energy cost. It's not nearly as environmentally friendly as many people think. I appreciate ideas for reusing instead! I use small box's and toilet paper rolls to organize my cosmetic drawer. It's easy to make a network and the toilet paper rolls are great for keeping thing like my makeup brush's upright.

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  25. Anonymous6/08/2014

    Hey Bea what's going on with those spell casters stuff!!
    Any spell for more bulk food in my area! :)
    Love your blog, great tips, thanks

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  26. Anonymous6/10/2014

    Don't forget to check out the ZW Forum for reuse and ZW ideas! Click through from the link at the top of this page.

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  27. maggie6/12/2014

    cardboard can be used as a base layer when sheet mulching in gardens, or to transform a grass lawn into a less water-intensive xeriscape. on a much smaller scale we used cardboard toilet paper tubes to grow our veggie garden seedlings in. we also put tubes in with our bunny for him to chew on and use it to line the bottom of the cage - when it's time to clean it out, we compost the cardboard and his litter together. we mix it into the soil before planting the garden - we've never had so much produce or so many happy plants!

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  28. I don't know if anyone has mentioned the Halloween decoration trick yet

    http://www.thriftycraftygirl.com/2011/10/31-days-of-halloween-eyes-in-bushes.html

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  29. Beautiful article! I don't think that people today make enough of an effort to recycle, and you offered here some very creative and unique ideas... Thnk you for hsring! Sefer
    https://www.etsy.com/shop/SeferArt

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  30. The cardboard inners from tights is kept along with used envelopes and clipped together for notepads. Loo roll inners are turned into seedling containers, we then plant the whole thing out in the vegetable patch, the cardboard decomposes.

    As I run our Sunday School and Messy Church there is little that we can't find a use for craft wise. I have managed to locate a very large packing box which will be the ship from the calming of the storm parable this Sunday. Next week it will be turned upside down and become the house where Jesus healed the paralytic man. I'm sure the following week it will be something else :)

    The wax covered boxes that fruit juice comes in are perfect when dried for firelighters (I think it is something in the wax?) I have also used them to grow seedlings (cut out one side and lie on their side) but that does mean that they have to be disposed of later so I prefer the former use.

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  31. The problem I have with people reusing is that often they build this contraption (lots of DIY's on pinterest) of different materials. In the end, all of the recyclable material will end up in the trash. I don't know if my views on this are correct or not.

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    1. Anonymous6/26/2014

      Sorry,Cynthia. I replied below!;)

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    2. Yep, thanks for pointing that out here. That's exactly what I cover in my book in the crafts chapter: Reuse only preserves the environment if the new object created isn't made from a material that could have been avoided in the first place (plastic bags, orange juice cartons, etc) and doesn't turn a recyclable material into one that is no longer recyclable (adding/gluing other types materials to it). A zero waste household is to consider not only the recyclability of the item to be created, but also the true need for the item to be created. No need to make a pouch, a pillow or a frame with reclaimed materials for your house if you do not need them! The material would have then served the Earth better if it had been recycled.

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  32. You could use your paper and cardboard in building a keyhole garden. My first attempt is small but the plants are doing well, even in the heat of Texas. http://www.texascooppower.com/texas-stories/nature-outdoors/keyhole-gardening

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  33. Anonymous6/26/2014

    Cynthia, I totally agree. I have completely torn apart things the kids bring home from school. Peel off eyes, remove foam stickers, etc. then I can just recycle the recyclables. But I wonder in today's society, how many actually take the time to do this?

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