Corrugated (Not Cardboard) Recycling Q&A

We’ve been handling corrugated recycling for manufacturing companies and other businesses for decades. Here are some common questions we’ve heard over the years and our answers to these questions:

1. What is the difference between OCC, cardboard, and corrugated?

While often used interchangeably, these words do not all mean the same thing. The term cardboard, which is the most commonly used of the three, actually refers to a specific type of thick, rigid paperboard material, such as that used in tissue boxes and the like. Meanwhile corrugated is the proper name for the standard 3 piece material that makes up a “cardboard box.” Corrugated material has 2 flat exterior layers of kraft paper which sandwich an interior fluted layer of kraft. OCC is an abbreviation used for “old corrugated containers.” Therefore, once corrugated has been used and is ready for recycling, it is considered OCC.

2. Is there any value in recycling OCC?

Yes, many used materials, like corrugated, are not only recyclable but also have a market value by weight. While the exact amount you can make off OCC will depend on market rates as well as the quantity and quality of your material, we have seen companies save thousands on waste management expenses by pulling this material out of their waste streams for recycling.

3. Should I bale my OCC?

Yes, if your company has the resources to rent or purchase a baler, you should consider doing so. Balers compress materials so they are bound in a dense, rigid form, called a bale. Shipping OCC bales, rather than loose corrugated, will allow you to maximize your trailer weights so that you have the highest potential for rebates and lowest relative transportation costs. We’ve found balers to be especially cost effective for manufacturing facilities that produce at least a trailer load of OCC each month.

4. Do boxes need to be broken down before recycling?

If you are compacting your OCC (either with a compactor or baler) you should not break down your boxes. The reason for this is that boxes that are compressed from their original form are more likely to group together better than those that are broken down before compaction. For instance, if you were to break down your corrugated boxes prior to loading them in a vertical baler, the individual boxes would have nothing holding them together within the bale beyond the baling wire. This could make it easy for OCC pieces to begin slipping out of the bale, which could cause the entire bale to fall apart.

5. Do tape and labels need to be removed before recycling?

No, you do not need to remove tape or labels. The recycling process for corrugated material is equipped to handle labels and tape, so you can save yourself and your coworkers time and energy by leaving the tape and labels alone. Removing them would have very little effect on your recycling rebates.

6. Can wet OCC be recycled?

No, you should not recycle wet OCC. This is a paper fiber material, and when its fibers get wet they are weakened and become easier to tear. Because the value of recycled paper depends largely on its fiber quality, you want to avoid any actions that might weaken the fibers. If you have wet corrugated you would like to recycle, set it aside and allow the material to dry before adding it to your recycling.

7. What amount of contamination is acceptable?

While contamination should be avoided as much as possible, there are certain materials, such as the tape and labels we mentioned earlier, which will not harm the recycling equipment or significantly reduce your recycling rebates. For instance, while you should not recycle OCC that is caked in mud, grease, or food residue, a light dusting of material, such as flower or powder, is acceptable.

8. Can I bale other material with my OCC?

Typically no, you want to avoid baling other materials with your corrugated bales because doing so could reduce their value. If your company produces enough used OCC to justify its own baler, you should stick to OCC in your bales. However, if you have limited amounts of OCC but you do have other paper grades you need to recycle, your recycling service provider may recommend a commingled bale. Check with your recycling company to see what they recommend for your specific needs and constraints.

9. Can I bale my kraft bags with my OCC?

That depends on the type of kraft you are trying to bale. Kraft comes in many forms, some of which are coated with a wax layer or plastic liner. Such lined kraft materials would greatly reduce your cardboard value and should not be added to OCC bales. However, if you have pure kraft paper, this is the same material that corrugated is made out of. Therefore it is safe to add to your OCC bale. Check with your recycling company to better understand what kinds of kraft material can and cannot be commingled with corrugated.

10. How heavy should my bales be?

That depends largely on the type of baler you are using. Balers come in many sizes, and different balers have different compression forces. The key to maximizing your bale weight is to continually pack down the material over time. Do not just load your baler until it is full and then produce a bale. Instead, compress the material each time you load it into the baler, and you will be able to fit more material into each bale. At Northstar Recycling, the balers we often use have the capability of producing OCC bales of up to 1100 lbs. We recommend companies using these balers try to produce at least 800 pound bales.

11. How is OCC recycled?

OCC is recycled in the same processes as kraft and other paper materials. First the material is sorted and collected. Then it is baled and shipped to various recycling companies, or directly to a paper mill. Eventually it will undergo a milling process, where by it is pulped, cleaned, screened, deinked, kneaded, bleached, treated, and made into new paper products, such as paper liner board.   

These are just a few recycling best practices we recommend to all business. For more ideas on how to optimize your company’s waste and recycling program, consider contacting us today.