Thinking and Recycling Outside the Box

Written by Diane Smith

I have a thing for cardboard. If there were a reality show called Cardboard Hoarders, I’d be on it. But I’d be the host. And instead of shaming the highlighted hoarder-of-the-week, that poor misguided soul buried under an avalanche of boxes and toilet paper rolls, I’d lavish praise and offer advice regarding cardboard re-use. As a homemaker, teacher and die-hard recycler, I’ve found that cardboard comes in handy in many ways.

It all started when we moved three hundred miles to California’s Central Coast. After hurriedly unpacking, we were left with scads of empty boxes—from wardrobe to shoebox size. We could cram only so many flattened boxes into our curbside recycling bin. Unless we wanted to pay extra for bundled cardboard, it would take weeks of cramming before they’d all be gone.

No, I would find a way to make use of those boxes. My first inspiration came with the discovery that our poodle had developed an aversion to car trips. Apparently he was suffering a kind of PTMD—Post Traumatic Moving Disorder. Actually, we all were, but his particular manifestation was a pronounced anxiety when riding in any vehicle. This was a problem; I couldn’t have a whimpering, panicky dog running loose in my car.

I sprang into action. I grabbed a good-sized box and cut the tops off on all sides but one, which became the side over which the seatbelt would fasten. Then, on the side opposite the door, I cut out a poodle-sized opening for easy entering and exiting. An old pillow fit snugly in the bottom of the box. I stood back and looked it over. It needed something. That’s when I had the idea to cover it in contact paper. It not only looked good, but firmed up the box even more.

Finally, I tested my new dog crate. In went my dog, and it worked perfectly. Now, whenever we take a car ride, he sits in his box, just high enough to see out the window, secure in the containment of a comfy crate.

My cardboard obsession continued after I began working in an after-school program teaching enrichment classes and helping kids with homework. “Homework Club” is conducted in a large multipurpose room. The activity and noise level runs pretty high, often making it difficult to concentrate. It occurred to me that the rest of those big boxes could be cut and fashioned into cubicles. The kids had a great time decorating their cubbies with yarn, magazine cutouts, and stickers. A few of them even attached copies of the multiplication tables and U.S. maps. The cubicles are holding up very well and are helping with the problem of distractibility.

At school, I also found uses for the medium-sized boxes. In my art enrichment class, we used them for a project called “Smithopoly.” We discovered the natural folds of the boxes made for good game boards. The kids then designed their own games, some fashioning standup cardboard people as markers.

Other uses for cardboard pieces include handmade book covers (great for journals), backings for mounting artwork, and “poetry mobiles,” in which student poems are pasted on cardboard pieces that are cut into geometric or organic shapes and hung from a piece of driftwood.

Back to my imaginary reality show, Cardboard Hoarders. “What about the toilet paper rolls?” you might ask and you would not be surprised that I’ve found many uses for those, too. Every art teacher worth her weight in—well, cardboard—knows that toilet paper rolls make great pencil holders. In my version, I cover them with the comics section of the newspaper, which reflects my sense of humor. To make them stand up, I mount them on a base made of—you guessed it—cardboard.

About the author

Diane Smith

Diane Smith credits the turmoil of the '60s and hormones with curing a childhood shyness, the only residual being some embarrassing poetry. In addition to having fostered a lifelong free-floating anxiety, she raised various children and animals, while working as a teacher. She has published several articles and won first place in short story in the 2011 Lillian Dean Writing Competition.

Diane is married, with grown kids who are currently spread out over the three states that make up the west coast, naturally causing her some concern. After a long career in education, she retired to the Central Coast to continue writing. Her fervent wish is not to float away when an earthquake causes California to break off from the rest of the country. After all, she has her poodle to think about.