Those boxes your gifts came in are now harder to recycle. Californians must adapt.

Recycling, center, trash, right and green waste bins sit on the side of Margarita Avenue in San Luis Obispo.
Recycling, center, trash, right and green waste bins sit on the side of Margarita Avenue in San Luis Obispo.

Changes in shopping habits and the markets for recyclables will test California’s well-established dedication to recycling this holiday season.

Americans spent a record amount of money on holiday shopping last year, and Cyber Monday 2017 was the largest single shopping day in history. E-commerce sales are expected to be even higher this season – by as much as 22 percent, and the estimated $134 billion in record online spending could correlate to a record number of cardboard boxes on doorsteps.

Until now, growth in the use of cardboard boxes has been a manageable environmental issue. They are the most-recycled packaging material, with nearly half of the material used to make new boxes coming from paper recovered for recycling. Californians have been doing their part to put used cardboard into recycle bins, which fed a nationwide recovery rate of about 90 percent for the past seven years along with an international market for recovered paper.

This year, however, the market has changed. Consumer recycling habits will also need to change to prevent a mountain of gifts from turning into a mountain of waste.

China has been the main destination for recovered paper from California. But this year, China restricted the import of mixed paper and adopted tight limits on contamination – for example, the amount of plastic or adhesive residues on recovered paper. As a result, U.S. exports of all recovered paper to China were down 40 percent in the first three months of 2018, and U.S. exports of mixed paper are down 96 percent.


To meet the changing demands, consumers are going to have to update their recycling habits, and in some cases their buying habits.

The first step is for consumers is to actively sort their materials. Clean paperboard or cardboard boxes remain 100% recyclable and should be put it in the recycling bin. If a box contains wet or greasy food residue, it is not recyclable and belongs in the trash.

Mark murray.png
Mark Murray

Consumers also need to check paper and boxes they intend to recycle for non-paper packing materials, tape and plastic labels. These are not recyclable and can contaminate otherwise recyclable paper.

Consumers can help by physically breaking down boxes before putting them in the recycling bin. When the volume of boxes is highest around the holidays, empty boxes quickly take up bin space, crowding out other recyclable items and keeping the bins from being closed. Materials exposed to the rain can quickly lose value.

Finally, now more than ever, it makes sense to take a good look at how we buy things. Many single-use plastics and plastic coated paper products are not recyclable, and putting these materials in the bin increases sorting costs and reduces value.

The paper and packaging industry is doing its part to match efforts by consumers to support recycling. Industry-led paper recovery efforts have fostered a dynamic marketplace that allows recovered fiber to find its highest value end-use in manufacturing new products. According to the American Forest & Paper Association, in 2017, 88.8 percent of all cardboard boxes consumed in the U.S. were recovered for recycling, and their recovery rate has exceeded 82 percent for the past nine years.

In California, better than 90 percent of households have access to curbside recycling. And despite China’s restrictions, most of the material placed in bins gets recycled back into new products and packaging. Last year it’s estimated that California’s curbside recycling infrastructure supplied manufacturers with more than 2.5 million tons of recycled material — most of it paper. In addition to conserving resources and reducing pollution, continuing to recycle supports thousands of jobs.

The holiday shopping season tests California’s recycling infrastructure more than any other time of the year. Because of a growing economy and changes in the international market for recovered paper, this year we will be tested like never before. If consumers, industry and government work together, this holiday season can not only be merry but environmentally friendly as well.

Mark Murray is executive director of Californians Against Waste. He may be reached at