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Op/Ed

Online shopping for the holidays? Here’s what to do with the boxes

If your online shopping for the holidays has you dealing with endless cardboard piles in your home, you aren’t alone.

Boxes for moving out of a house representing online shopping

Online shopping has been going absolutely gangbusters.

This boom means that people are sending a lot of stuff around through the mail. I’m no exception: I jokingly call my front door “the shipping bay” because these days, there are always boxes standing there, waiting to be sent out or opened up.

With every delivery, there comes a cardboard box – and consumers haven’t ever had to take responsibility for disposing of cardboard on this scale before. Turns out, it’s no small responsibility.

Different materials have very different “life spans.” For example, glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely (in ideal conditions.) Most plastics can only be recycled once or twice, and brand-new “virgin” plastic is still required in the process.

Since cardboard is made from unbleached paper fibers that are long and durable, it happens to be a recycling goldmine. New corrugated cardboard can be recycled lots of times, and then repurposed into other materials when it degrades. That is, as long as it’s kept clean and dry.

The majority of businesses that deal with boxed goods on a large scale have systems to ensure that their cardboard gets recycled efficiently and responsibly. Although, there isn’t a federal program or mandate that ensures this. Most locales have some kind of regional or state law that requires businesses to recycle.

On the other hand, the average household is much more likely to dispose of cardboard in the garbage or soil it too much to be usable.

In fact, most home recycling bins in the US are contaminated beyond salvageability. Once all the bins in the neighborhood get collected and mixed together, dirty recyclables can mess up the rest of the batch, too. Recycling sorters often have to sift through everything from human waste to batteries, which are a fire hazard when mixed with paper recycling.

Cardboard is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the waste that is generated by online shopping.

Still, boxes will be a consumer responsibility for as long as we’re relying on online shopping and shipping to get our goods, even once the pandemic ends. It’s worth reminding ourselves to be mindful of all waste, not just trash. Stuff doesn’t vanish when we put it in the bin; “reduce” and “reuse” come before “recycle” for a reason.

Desmond Meagley is an award-winning writer, graphic artist and cultural commentator in D.C. A proud YR Media alumn, Desmond's writing and illustrations have been featured in the SF Chronicle, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, The Daily Cal, and NPR among others. In their spare time, Desmond enjoys vegetarian cooking and vigorous bike rides.

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