KEY POINTS

  • Recyclable material is valuable material
  • Recycling in the United States is up 7% from last year
  • Even pizza boxes can be put to use

An increase in recycling is one of the silver linings during the pandemic, and U.S. suppliers are finding more uses for everything from cardboard to dirty pizza boxes.

We’re shopping online and ordering take out more than we did in 2019. The Solid Waste Association of North America finds total U.S. residential recycling programs are collecting 7% more material than they were this time last year.

“We’re more than happy to see it,” Brent Bell, a vice president for recycling at Houston-based Waste Management Inc., told the Wall Street Journal. “We’ve said this is valuable material.”

Brick-and-mortar sales are on the decline, though companies that do cater to online shoppers, such as Amazon are succeeding. Home improvement chains have also seen their business boom and all that can add up to a lot of boxes.

But with offices closing, some recyclers are seeing their paper-shredding business dry up. That’s where all that cardboard comes in. Texas Recycling Inc. said cardboard can help make up for the 40% drop in office-paper shredding.

“The demand for corrugated is going to pick up,” co-owner Joel Litman told the Journal.

What’s mixed in with curbside recycling isn’t always good material to turn into new paper or cardboard. Chinese government standards made the world’s second-largest economy also among the biggest buyers of this type of product, but U.S. mills are catching up.

Atlanta-based Recycler WestRock spent the summer encouraging its customers to dump used pizza boxes, usually a recycling no-no, into their bins so the company can churn that to a pulp that can be used to make new cardboard. And paper-product giant Georgia Pacific recently spent some $45 million on mills that could produce pulp from a wider range of recycled products.

“Those who are recycling are recycling more,” said Kevin Hudson, the vice president of forestry and recycled fiber at WestRock said. “You’re definitely seeing more old corrugated cardboard from residential programs since COVID.”

But it’s not all good news. A study from the Pew Charitable Trusts and London-based environmental science company Systemiq finds the use of single-use plastic items has accelerated during the pandemic. An estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic wind up in oceans each year.

Recycling Plant Workers sort recycling material at the Waste Management Material Recovery Facility in Elkridge, Maryland, June 28, 2018. Some 900 tons of trash are dumped at all hours of the day and night, five days a week, on the conveyor belts at the plant. For months, this major recycling facility for the greater Baltimore-Washington area has been facing a big problem: it has to pay to get rid of huge amounts of paper and plastic it would normally sell to China. But Beijing is no longer buying, claiming the recycled materials are 'contaminated.' Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images