10 to 15 Tips for Recycling Paper

Dad and son taking out paper recycling

With the holiday season here, you might be ordering more packages than usual. If you’re scratching your head wondering what to do with all those shipping boxes, don’t.

Paper and boxes are one of the most recycled materials in the U.S. and can be recycled and made into new products up to seven times!

In 2021, 91.4% of corrugated cardboard packaging and 68% of paper was recycled in the United States. Approximately 80% of U.S. paper and packaging mills use some recovered paper fibers in their products, and most corrugated boxes are made from 70% to 100% recycled material. 

Recycling keeps paper out of landfills and makes the most of our natural resources. But there are also a lot of recycling myths around paper packaging that can inhibit the recycling process. Here’s everything you need to know about paper sustainability and recycling tips.

How do you recycle paper?

The easiest way to recycle paper is by creating an at-home recycling center. In one area of your home, set up a few bins or upcycled cardboard boxes that are properly labeled with images of what materials go in them.

Whenever you have an item that’s made of paper or cardboard, place it in this bin. When it fills up, just put it out for curbside pickup, or add it to your recycling bin outside.

The paper will be taken to paper mills where it will be separated into types and grades. Then the paper will be washed to remove glue, ink, film, or other contaminants using soapy water.

Once washed, the paper will be transferred to a large container and mixed with water to create pulp. The pulp is pressed, dried and rolled into large thin sheets which are cut and used again to make recycled paper goods.

Mother and daughter recycling together

Why is it important to recycle paper?

Recycling paper is important because it helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Here are some other benefits to paper recycling, according to the EPA:

  • Extends the fiber supply and contributes to carbon sequestration.
  • Saves considerable landfill space.
  • Reduces energy and water consumption.
  • Decreases the need for disposal (i.e., landfill or incineration which decreases the amount of CO2 produced).
Family recycling paper products in kitchen
What paper materials can be recycled?

Glad you asked! A number of paper materials can be recycled. Here’s a full list of the kind of paper you can typically recycle (but make sure to check your local recycling guidelines first):

  • Pizza boxes—empty the box first, brush out your crumbs, and then recycle (even a little grease is okay). Just make sure to check your local guidelines for proper disposal first. If you can’t recycle your pizza box in your area, you can always compost it.
  • White and colored paper—think writing paper, file folders, stationery.
  • Mail and envelopes (yes, even those with windows), paper greeting cards—if you still get coupons, toss ’em in too.
  • Most of those little boxes that pile up when you buy cereal, frozen food, shoes, cosmetics, medicine.
  • Shipping boxes—empty them, break them down so they're flat, and keep them dry.
  • Magazines and newsprint—no need to remove staples or worry about special inks, today’s recycling machinery can handle them.
  • Juice and milk cartons—make sure to tap out any excess liquid first.
  • Wrapping paper that is free of foil and glitter; including the cardboard tube.

Whatever you do, don’t wishcycle. Wishcycling is when you toss something into the recycling bin and hope it’ll be recycled. This can contaminate the entire bin!

If you're unsure if you can recycle something, check with local guidelines - they vary from state to state (sometimes town to town), so err on the safe side.

Print off a recycling checklist here!
Download the recycling checklist
Don’t forget upcycling

While I will always advocate for recycling properly, we should upcycle and reuse before that. Upcycling paper and cardboard gives these materials a second life.

Here are some fun upcycle ideas that will keep your paper packaging from being wasted:

  • Moving soon? Flatten shipping boxes and store them for when you need to start packing.
  • Re-use wrapping paper for another gift (if it’s not too crinkled).
  • Use cardboard boxes to upgrade your costume crafts (you can cut out and paint wings, stars, or other shapes). Or use it to make a robot costume!
  • Save any decorative cardboard boxes you get during Christmas for next Christmas to package gifts.
  • Cardboard tubes can be used to make gift tags, napkin rings, or gift pouches.
  • Tissue boxes can be upcycled into storage for pens, highlighters, paint brushes. Or you can use it as a mail holder.
  • Use the paper in old books to make paper flowers that embellish gifts, wreaths, or frames.
  • Transform an oatmeal canister to a gift container. Upcycle some newspaper, magazine pages or calendar pages and wrap them around the canister to hide the oatmeal logo. Or try painting over it! You can also upcycle the canister into a flower pot (make sure to poke drainage holes in the bottom if you do this though).
  • Use scrap paper to write down notes, reminders, grocery lists, or important phone numbers.
  • Leftover packaging paper? Save it and use it to wrap gifts for the holidays, as long as it’s not ripped or torn. Make it zero waste by tying it shut with hemp twine instead of tape.