Dear Dot: Must I Remove Packing Tape and Labels Before Recycling Amazon Boxes?

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Dear Dot,

While Amazon and other online stores are using more recyclable packaging, they all come covered with packing tape and labels. Can cardboard boxes be recycled when covered with all of that, or does that need to be removed before recycling (which almost no one does or is willing to do)?

–Emily Steinberg, Brooklyn

The Short Answer: You asked a straightforward question, Emily, and I will offer you a clear, straightforward answer, right out of the mouths (the typing fingers?) of the folks at Amazon: “Cardboard boxes are recyclable in most curbside recycling programs. Flatten the box and remove tape before putting it in your recycling bin.” What happens if you don’t? Well, not much. It’s helpful to remove it but if you don’t, it gets removed during the recycling process. 

Dear Emily,

Covid acquainted Dot with Amazon boxes. And more Amazon boxes. And yet more Amazon boxes. I suspect many of us became extremely familiar with Amazon boxes. And bags. And paper mailers. 

What we might be less familiar with is what to do with all those boxes and bags (paging Dr. Seuss), beyond collapsing them, tossing them curbside, and hoping they are reincarnated into another form to deliver another package. (Dot’s cat, Bob, would like to note that, while he loves little more than a good box, he really only needs one to chew into a bed. Or maybe two.) 

Amazon talks a good line. And they do go further than many other companies by providing info detailing how to dispose of their packaging

If your Amazon product arrived in a bubble-lined plastic bag (and you lack curbside recycling for such a thing), Amazon directs you to where (potentially … if facilities are available) you can drop it off for recycling. For instance, I put my zip code in and was directed to a nearby Stop & Shop supermarket, which does, indeed, accept plastic bags for recycling.

If a paper-padded mailer was the packaging for whatever you might have ordered, you can recycle it the way you typically would any paper product

What raises Dot’s dander is how companies dump responsibility for getting their packaging into recyclable shape (and sometimes even traveling to responsibly dispose of it), and onto our taxpayer-funded recycling and trash services. Do you have time to shuttle your packaging around to various drop-off depots for recycling, Emily? I suspect that, even if you do, there are myriad other things you would prefer to be doing with your one wild and precious life. Dot certainly has better things to do with hers. 

The packaging industry is ripe for innovation, in Dot’s not-so-humble opinion. Packaging that disappears upon delivery! Edible packaging! Amazon claimed it was offering tips via a QR code on its boxes for how to reuse them (a pretend rocket ship! A canine car! A kitty condo!). Seriously? I say to Amazon. Like people haven’t been doing this without instruction since the advent of cardboard boxes? I have yet to see such a QR code on any Amazon boxes I’ve received, but if you have, please let Dot know (de*****@bl***********.com). 

Increasingly, states are enacting legislation making producers responsible for the disposal/recycling of the packaging they produce — led by Maine, whose legislation takes effect in 2024, and Oregon, where laws will go into effect in 2025. In Canada, the province of Ontario is, beginning July 2023, overhauling its recycling program and directing the cost of operating it to the producers of recyclables. 

The hope with these initiatives is, at least in part, that those who create these materials will be motivated to reduce their volume and increase their recyclability. Stay tuned to see whether that occurs. (We can look for optimism at mattress recycling initiatives that forced producers to deal with disposal: “In its first year of program implementation, the mattress recycling rate in Connecticut rose from 8.7% to 63.5%, and in California more than 23,700 illegally dumped mattresses were collected in 29 counties,” reports the Product Stewardship Institute.) 

But back, specifically, to Amazon. It can be easy to hate on the corporate behemoth (not least for putting so many awesome independent bookstores out of business). But hey — we’re the ones Buy Now-ing our way through life. And Amazon was, perhaps literally, a lifesaver for a lot of us during the pandemic. So let’s applaud what they’re doing better, which is offering Frustration-Free Packaging (“an innovation designed to reduce waste and delight customers with easy-to-open, 100% recyclable packaging. … Since 2015, we have reduced the weight of outbound packaging by 33% and eliminated more than 900,000 tons of packaging material, the equivalent of 1.6 billion shipping boxes”). “Frustration-Free” might be overstating it a bit, but “Slightly-Less-Annoying Packaging” wouldn’t have the same ring to it. 

But you asked a straightforward question, Emily, and I will offer you a clear, straightforward answer, right out of the mouths of the folks at Amazon: “Cardboard boxes are recyclable in most curbside recycling programs. Flatten the box and remove tape before putting it in your recycling bin.”

There you have it, my friend. “… remove tape before putting it in your recycling bin.” There’s little you can do for those around you who refuse to follow those simple instructions, but you, yourself, can “remove tape before putting it in your recycling bin.” 

What happens if you don’t? Well, not much, say the recycling gurus at Recycle Nation. Everything becomes what those in the biz call a “slurry” and then the tape and various other sundry that is not a paper product rises to the top and gets skimmed off. The less there is to rise, the better, but the process is designed to deal with us recycling slackers who can’t be bothered to remove packing tape and labels and those little plastic-y windows in envelopes. Not you, of course, Emily, but those ne’er-do-wells around you with their umpteen Amazon boxes covered in packing tape. 

So I guess an exhausted Dot’s answer is: Please remove packing tape. Or don’t. Whatever.  

Boxily, 

Dot

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