The hustle and bustle of Black Friday and Cyber Monday signal not only the peak of holiday shopping but also a surge in packaging materials.

In the midst of this seasonal consumption, the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) sheds light on the state of paper and cardboard recycling, emphasising their critical role in mitigating environmental impact.

Kaela Martins, Manager of Recycling and Packaging Sustainability at AF&PA, shares insights into the association’s perspective on paper and cardboard recycling during the holiday shopping events. As she notes, “Paper products, including cardboard boxes, are widely recycled across the United States.”

The paper industry has consistently achieved high recycling rates, with cardboard boasting an impressive rate of over 82% since 2009 and an overall paper recycling rate of nearly 68% in 2022.

This success, according to Martins, is attributed to “robust access to recycling programmes and our industry’s investment.”

A staggering 94% of Americans now have access to community paper and paperboard recycling programmes, facilitated by the paper industry’s commitment of nearly $7 billion from 2019-2025 for manufacturing investments using over 9 million tons of recovered fibre.

While holiday packaging sees a significant uptick, Martins assures consumers, “the overwhelming majority of their holiday gifts arrive in sustainable, highly recycled paper packaging.”

Cardboard boxes, often at the forefront of this surge, are hailed as the most-recycled packaging material in the U.S., with approximately “half of the material used nationwide to make new boxes [coming] from paper recovered for recycling.”

Encouraging recycling best practices

To further encourage responsible recycling practices, AF&PA actively supports programmes that educate Americans about recycling best practices. Martins stresses the importance of consumer participation, stating, “Everyone is an active participant in paper recycling’s success story.”

She outlines simple steps individuals can take, such as checking local government guidelines, avoiding “wishcycling,” keeping paper products clean and dry, and advocating for the acceptance of products like pizza boxes in recycling programs.

Martins acknowledges the challenges associated with specific items, such as pizza boxes, which constitute about “600,000 tons of cardboard annually.” Despite common misconceptions, she asserts, “pizza boxes are recyclable and accepted at paper mills across the country, even if they contain some leftover grease or cheese.”

The challenge lies in updating municipal recycling guidance to explicitly include used pizza boxes, an initiative AF&PA actively supports.

As businesses and consumers gear up for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Martins emphasises the need for a collective effort towards sustainability.

She advises, “To continue paper recycling’s ongoing success, it’s essential that consumers and businesses follow proper recycling habits.” Simple practices, like emptying, flattening, and placing cardboard boxes in recycling bins, can significantly contribute to a more sustainable holiday season.

Martins also highlights an industry innovation in the form of paper-padded mailers, which are gaining popularity in online shopping.

These mailers, primarily made with paper and without plastic bubble wrap, are “recycled at paper mills across the country.” Martins encourages consumers to recycle these mailers and consult local guidelines for clarity.

In the face of increased waste during the holiday shopping season, AF&PA’s message is clear: paper and cardboard recycling are not just environmentally responsible but essential components of a sustainable future.

This holiday season, let responsible recycling practices be the gift that keeps on giving.