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What’s In A (Confusing) Name? Cardboard vs. Paperboard, And More

By Recyclebank |

A recyclable by any other name may need special treatment. Whether it’s cardboard vs. paperboard or foamed polystyrene vs. #6 plastic, we’ve got you.

Dear Recyclebank: I'm not always sure if I'm recycling correctly because I see lots of different recyclables being referred to by different names, and I'm not sure if they really mean different things or not. For example, are paperboard and cardboard both the same to recyclers? And what is foamed polystyrene? –Elaine

Dear Elaine: Overlapping terms can be confusing. Of course, it helps to know what subtype of a material an item is made of, and how it was produced, in order to determine whether or not it’s recyclable. But for the majority of us who are not materials engineers or scientists, it’s not always intuitive — so we’ll break down some of the more commonly confused terms.

We’ll start with the examples you asked about: Cardboard is a catch-all term that can refer either to thin paperboard used in items like food and household packaging, or to the thicker corrugated cardboard you see in your average brown shipping box (think waves of cardboard between two outer layers).

Both are widely recyclable if they’re not coated or contaminated, but they’re not exactly the same to recyclers. Because they’re produced differently, they also need to be processed differently. However, that sorting will almost always take place at your local MRF — it’s rare that a resident would be expected to separate types of cardboard from each other.


Foamed polystyrene is a type of plastic that has been puffed up with air, making it good for insulation and cushioning, and you might see it referred to as one of its two major forms: Extruded and expanded. Foam sold under the brand name Styrofoam is a type of extruded polystyrene, but most of the things you might call “styrofoam” — like disposable cups or plates and packaging cushions — are expanded polystyrene.

Hard polystyrene, on the other hand, is a hard plastic you might
encounter in the form of disposable cups and plates, disposable coffee cup lids, and CD and DVD cases. When communities accept #6 plastics for recycling, they are usually referring only to hard polystyrene; foamed polystyrene can be harder to find a place for, as it’s processed differently.



To recycle foamed polystyrene, check out the options from EPS Industry Alliance, like their facility map and list of mail-back programs.


Other common mix-ups:

Not all plastic films are made alike. Plastic grocery bags, sandwich bags,
cereal bags, and bubble wrap are just a few different plastic films we
encounter almost every day.

When it comes to curbside recycling,all plastic films are difficult to recycle due to their tendency to get caught in the machinery at the local MRF. But many grocery stores now have drop-off programs that accept many kinds of plastic film, which can be recycled at specially equipped facilities. has an online drop-off locator to help you find a nearby collection point.





Cling wrap, another plastic film, shouldn’t be thrown in, though, as other components mixed in with the plastic make it impossible to recycle. Likewise, frozen food bags have layers of different materials for insulating food and should be kept out of the both the recycling bin and the plastic bag or plastic film collection boxes.

Rubber is often used to refer to a number of different elastomers that each have different properties. For instance, natural rubber is carbon-based, and silicone — true to its name — is silicon-based. Because of this, they are much different from the standard recyclable plastics #1–#7, and generally can’t be recycled together or with any other plastics (so no, don’t put your old silicone bakeware in the recycling bin).

Both are tricky to find alternate recycling options for, but if you come across a rubber recycling collection event, make sure to confirm you don’t have silicone, and vice versa.


Coated paper products can vary. Waxed paper is unable to be recycled due to the mix of materials, but glossy paper, like you find in magazines, is more widely accepted.

Finally, the cartons you get milk in are different from the aseptic cartons that soups, broths, and juice may come in.

Both types of cartons contain some plastic, but aseptic cartons also contain a layer of aluminum to help keep foods shelf-stable.

Despite the assortment of materials, many recycling programs can now accept these, as the facilities that would use them can separate these layers and process the different components. As always, check your local guidelines to be sure; you can also check for a list of places that accept different types of cartons.


Explain That Stuff
Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council




Are there any recycling terms that confuse you? Let us know in the comments, and we may have the answer for you in a future column!

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