Dear cardboard box: I remember you as the original recyclable. You were the first thing recyclable the trash companies would take, if appropriately broken down and stacked neatly next to the trash bin. Now you’re “commingled” with other recyclables, your right-hand-to-the-can status is gone forever.
But don’t worry. Your inherent practicality means you’re still number one to us frugalistas. We love you, from your obvious to your unusual uses. As I always say, “Take care of your cardboard and your cardboard will take care of you.” Let’s count the corrugated ways.
1. Car Trunk Organizer
My current favorite use for cardboard helps my car trunk function according to its original intent: A place to put stuff. Cardboard boxes organize and make room, so I rarely have to jam things into the passenger seat because there’s no floor space in the trunk. Boxes keep the trunk clean, too.
Our neighborhood garage sale is this month, so I’m stocking up now. I’ve had my eye out for the best cardboard for signs. It should be thick enough to pop a nail through and will resist flapping in the wind. Using cardboard usually requires cutting with a safety blade, so get yourself a good one.
Cardboard comes to the rescue at the end of a moving day as a tabletop for Chinese takeout. Happily situated on a rug, you can roll over and pass out. Cardboard box tables also will return for my garage sale: two big ones with a board on top.
4. Cupcake Stand
A cupcake stand is just a lemonade stand updated! My daughter will sell cupcakes at the garage sale, so she’ll make her very own cardboard store with cardboard signs and, most likely, a small cardboard box for the register.
5. Packing and Shipping Containers
Aside from happy thoughts of cupcakes and Chinese takeout -- any time I avoid cooking dinner is a joyful occasion -- I’ll mention the obvious. Stores will sell you cardboard boxes, like they’re somehow better than the ones you can get from just asking around or visiting the back door of a friendly neighborhood retailer. Don’t fall for it.
6. Gift Box
One thing not to do is tape the gift box. It’s awkward when a person pulls off the wrapping paper and has to go searching for a knife to finish the job. Make your wrapping job hold the box closed.
7. Filing System
This may be one area where it’s necessary to buy a box designed for the specific purpose, especially if you have a lot of paper to stash. Finding the right-sized box for hanging folders is a wild goose chase. Just recycle them when you’re done. Look for empty printer-paper boxes as they’ll fit your files perfectly.
8. Recycling Bin
With companies correcting their packaging issues to be more recyclable, and “commingling” becoming the norm, we’ve got more recycling than garbage these days, and could really use the extra box.
9. Small Garbage Can
There’s not much point in filling a huge box of trash if you’re unable to get it to the curb or into your car, so keep it small to fit next to a work bench or under the sink.
10. Landscape Fabric Replacement
A friend of mine uses cardboard as a weed barrier underneath a layer of garden mulch. I haven’t tried this myself, but it sounds like it would work, and certainly is cheaper than landscape fabric.
In my opinion, you can make a perfect sewing, cooking or craft-project pattern with a coated piece of cardboard. Certain boxes have a shiny surface, making a nice smooth edge when cut with your safety blade, and making it easy to slide the pattern around on your fabric or paper.
12. Craft Mat
Use another piece of cardboard as a handy disposable mat for cutting out your pattern, or for any other craft project.
13. Sock Drawer Separators
Cardboard walls are an easy way to keep things under control in sock drawers, which tend to devolve into junk drawers. It helps to maximize the space you have. For a few extra minutes with your trusty safety blade, you get a free, customized drawer organizer.
14. Laundry Basket
To be honest, my plastic basket has been going just fine for about 10 years; but a cardboard box could work if you cut hand-holes in the sides for portability. Some boxes even come with hand-holds.
15. Car, Boat, Plane, Spaceship…
My kids loved designing, building and decorating imaginative vehicles, and my husband loved helping them. You’ll need a supply of strong packing tape, but it makes for great shared, quality time! One year they made an X-wing fighter,” complete with a small set of battery-powered twinkle lights.
16. Over-sized Blocks
Cardboard blocks are another thing you can buy these days, but why spend on what you can get for free? Small boxes make perfect over-sized blocks. Use markers to draw a brick or stone pattern. Don’t bother making them all the exact same size, like the store-bought ones, as they fall down too easily. Different sizes provide needed leverage for your castle or fort.
After the kids are done building a house for themselves, they’ll naturally want to build a house for their small friends. Stuffed animals like a nice cardboard bed to sleep in, too.
18. Toy Box
Just tape up the edges, paint the box with bright colors and have the kids help you personalize them. The cardboard ensures a heavy lid won’t pinch tiny fingers and you’ll have the fun of creating another toy box when the first one wears out.
19. Puppet Stage
Keep your eyes open for a used refrigerator box to get creative with your kids on a stormy day. A scrap of fabric hung from a string makes a stage curtain. Decorate scenery backdrops (out of more cardboard?) and hang with paper clips. You can even create the puppets with cardboard: think shapes on a stick.
20. Halloween Costume
Become a foil-covered robot, noble knight, Lego man, pair of dice or box of candy with cardboard boxes. If your daughter insists it just isn’t cool to spend Halloween with her little brother in a team costume (think salt and pepper shakers), use the box yourself to be a vampire in a coffin by the front door.
21. Soccer Goal
When trying to practice soccer shots, it quickly becomes apparent two perfectly spaced trees are nearly impossible to find. You need a goal, but they’re pricey. Here’s where a large cardboard box comes to the rescue! Use smaller boxes to work on developing accuracy.
22. Basketball Net
Tack a bottomless cardboard box to a post and you’re ready to slam-dunk basketballs. This is really a good idea with young kids because you can make the “net” low and over-sized, so they can score more easily and build confidence.
23. Doppelgänger Craft Project
One of my kids’ favorite craft keepsakes are life-sized cutouts of themselves, made when they were in preschool. This requires a big box and sharp cutter. Decorate with yarn hair and fabric-scrap clothing, and don’t forget a happy face. These doppelgängers have greeted us from the garage wall for years.
24. Wind Protector or Beach Sunshade
Want to get in one more day at the beach despite gusty winds or a skin-searing sun? This trick may save your sanity when kids complain about the weather and having “nothing to do.” Bury the cardboard box halfway into the sand and let the kids play behind it.
25. Snow or Grass Sled
Look for coated cardboard for a sled that will stay dry the longest and go the fastest. Depending on conditions, however, you may actually want to slow it down with an uncoated piece. These sleds rock! Cardboard also makes ideal snow-fort bedding and snow-chair covers.
26. Gardening Mat
A cardboard gardening mat works perfectly, is always available (because you‘re stashing cardboard, right?) and is easily replaced for free.
27. Campfire Oven
Check here for two simple campfire-oven designs. I also use cardboard as a floor mat in the tent and as a doormat outside it: not to mention as a food storage unit and for hauling stuff there and back. Cardboard is truly a camper’s friend.
28. Emergency Umbrella
How many times have I grabbed a piece of cardboard out of my car trunk because the umbrella was not put back in the car? (No, not by me! Must have been the kids or my husband.) In any case, I didn’t get wet.
29. Paint Shield
This comes in handy when you’re touching up a straight edge while painting. It saves a lot of time because you can avoid taping. Just don’t drink too much coffee before beginning your project; Steady hands are essential.
30. Makeshift Dust Pans
This use has frequently been an “a-ha” moment for me, especially when I’ve swept up and collected a large pile of floor junk in the garage. A scrap-cardboard dustpan is also a classic for safely collecting broken glass.
31. Working Under the Car
Cardboard cushions and protects while you labor beneath your vehicle.
32. Glue Mixing Pad
I once had a hole in my house (yes, a small hole, right in the siding), and I needed a place to mix two toxic substances to create a waterproof filler for stuffing in the hole as a sealant. It was nice to just dump the cardboard when I finished.
33. Oil Spill Mat
A collapsed cardboard box offers layers of protection. If some oil has already spilled, sprinkle powdered laundry soap on the stain, then cover with your cardboard to catch other drips. Eventually the soap will absorb the oil and you can sweep it away.
34. Floor Protectors and Furniture Movers
Cardboard serves as a great hardwood-floor protector. Even on carpeting, moving large pieces of furniture is easier when you place cardboard under the feet or edges, and slide it instead of lifting.
35. Pet Bed
Our older dog occasionally has a seizure in the middle of the night, so his bed is a taped-at-the-seams cardboard box with a quilt. (His bladder control goes out the window during a seizure.) It’s disposable and I don’t have to clean the carpet every time there’s an accident.
36. Kitty Litter Box
We don’t have a kitty, but this is a another valuable time-saver to add to your arsenal on the housecleaning front. A cardboard kitty litter box may not be pretty, but it sure makes clean work of a messy job.
37. Kitten Holder During Cleanup
I can just imagine a pet tearing around the house, wreaking havoc as quickly as its owner tries to clean up. Somehow this seems a bit mean: totally funny, but mean. Of course, there are some cats who are obsessed with cardboard boxes. Enjoy this video of one. Use these tips and you’ll love your cardboard as much as the cat.