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Cardboard Mountains: The Unintended Consequence of Online Shopping

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

Most of us are very familiar with the consequences of an online shopping spree: a lighter checkbook and a more crowded closet. But there’s another consequence to the widespread increase in online shopping sales, and you can find it at your local recycling center. Among the piles of recyclable items waiting to be sorted, one item seems to stand out more than the others: cardboard.

An increase in cardboard mountains at recycling centers isn’t the only clue of the increase in online shopping; just take a look at these stats:

  • Ecommerce took a 14.3% share of total retail sales in 2018, up from 12.9% in 2017 and 11.6% in 2016. Source: Internet Retailer, U.S. Department of Commerce

  • In February 2019, the total market share of online U.S. retail sales was higher than general merchandise sales for the first time in history. Source: U.S. Department of Commerce

Online shopping has been on the upswing for years now, and it shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re one of the millions of shoppers who can’t turn down the convenience of ecommerce, you can still do the right thing for the environment after you open your shipped products. You already know cardboard boxes are supposed to be recycled, but what about other packing material?

Plastic Pillows, Bubble Wrap and Shrink Wrap: Although they are made of plastic, these packing items are not recyclable in your curbside recycling bin. They are, however, able to be recycled along with plastic bags at retail drop-off locations. To find your nearest drop-off location, or to see what other types of plastic film is recyclable, visit

Styrofoam Packing Peanuts: Polystyrene (Styrofoam) is difficult to recycle because it can’t be made into new containers. A piece of plastic foam may start off large at the beginning of the day, but crumble apart throughout the day, losing size and value. Therefore, most recycling centers do not accept this item. You should dispose of these types of packing peanuts in the trash.

Biodegradable Starch Peanuts: These “peanuts,” made of wheat and corn starch, are sometimes used in place of Styrofoam packing peanuts, although they are heavier and more expensive to create and ship. The plus side of these is that they easily dissolve in water.

Bubble Mailers: Bubble Mailers can create some confusion as they are paper envelopes lined with bubble wrap. Due to that plastic lining, these packing items are not recyclable in your curbside recycling bin, but can be recycled along with plastic bags at retail drop-off locations. In order for them to be recycled with plastic bags, all of the paper must be removed and disposed of. Only the bubble wrap lining remaining can be recycled at retail drop-off locations.

Packing Paper and Corrugate Inserts: Any items that are made exclusively out of corrugate or paper are recyclable in your curbside recycling bin.

Although you may not have much control over the type of packing material used when you order items online, you can cut down the overall use of environmentally unfriendly materials such as Styrofoam by reducing the amount you use. When sending packages, try replacing Styrofoam packing products with crumpled up newspaper, bubble wrap or any other type of recyclable material whenever possible. Always try to avoid using any type of packaging material if it is not absolutely necessary. And, when possible, make sure that you remind your recipient to properly recycle or dispose of all packing material!

Mountains of cardboard at recycling centers are a sign of the times. In this era of online shopping, you don’t have to give up your online shopping habits, but you should properly recycle packing materials whenever possible.

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