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30 uses for the humble cardboard box

Think inside the box and put used cardboard back to work.

By Karen Datko Dec 1, 2010 10:45AM

This post comes from Kentin Waits at partner blog Wise Bread.


Cardboard boxes are part of our visual vernacular -- trash to shopkeepers, treasure to eBay sellers, an annoyance to blade-wielding stock boys (and girls) around the world. Whether we're breaking them down or taping them back together, we are awash in a sea of these multisized corrugated work horses.

The list below is a love letter to the cardboard box -- 30 tips to reinterpret, reinvent and reuse it either temporarily or permanently. Take some tongue-in-cheek, take some to heart, and the next time you can -- take a few home from the curb.

  1. Packing and moving: Larger boxes from warehouse stores, supermarkets, or the office are perfect for packing and moving. Moving is expensive enough -- why not save a few bucks and get the boxes for free?
  2. Shipping: Probably the most obvious recycled use is the cardboard box's primary use -- packing and shipping. I use boxes I get for free at the grocery store and local dollar store to ship items I sell on eBay, which helps keep my overhead low.
  3. Filing: Create the perfect low-budget filing system by grabbing some printer-paper boxes and organizing your tax returns, instruction manuals, old college papers, or extra family photos.
  4. Recycling bin: I've always found it strange that we spend money buying containers to sort recyclables. Grab a big cardboard box, label appropriately, and truly go green.
  5. Trash bin: See Tip No. 4. Isn't using garbage to store garbage poetic simplicity?
  6. Car trunk organizer: Toss a medium-size box in your trunk to organize quarts of oil, windshield washer fluid, jumper cables and other emergency items.
  7. Signs: Having a yard sale or estate sale? Does your industrious child need some serious lemonade stand marketing? Cardboard boxes can become signage with just a few easy snips.
  8. Extra income: EBay, storage facilities, on-demand container moving, and a society in transition have all conspired to make selling recycled packing, shipping, and moving supplies a new cottage industry.
  9. Laundry basket: They don't make laundry baskets the way they used to. Avoid the $10 every few months and go rogue with cardboard. Cut handles in the side for easier toting.
  10. Little kid's makeshift car: One of my favorite family photos shows my 8-year-old brother pushing a 3-year-old me in an old cardboard box across the living floor. Despite having no batteries, no steering, and no wheels, I look absolutely delighted in my little makeshift car.
  11. Oversized blocks: Small boxes are great as disposable toy blocks. Use markers to draw windows, doors and chimneys on your kid's block houses or make entire little villages. Who needs LEGOs?
  12. Fort building: Stack boxes of various sizes and shapes to make a fort with your kids. Let them knock it down. Repeat.
  13. Toy box: Tape over any sharp edges, paint with fun colors, and personalize liberally. There are no heavy lids to fall on tiny fingers and no frustration when this toy box wears out.
  14. Gift giving: Splurge more on the gift by getting the box for free. Whether you're shipping the item or giving it in person, recycled boxes make any gift more wallet-wise and eco-friendly.
  15. Diorama projects: Those inevitable school projects and science fair displays are all designed perfectly for cardboard. I once explained the process of photosynthesis with just a shoebox, magic marker and painted golf ball.
  16. Makeshift canvas: Let your kids channel Jackson Pollock with cardboard as their canvas. Frame accordingly.
  17. Ugly insulation: We've all done it -- installed that window air conditioner and then tried to insulate around it with reused cardboard or Styrofoam. It's cheap, it's easy, and it works.
  18. Pet bed: A low-sided or shallow box makes a perfect pet bed. It may seem down-market, but with an old pillow and soft blanket, Spot won't complain. Involve the whole family in decorating it with pet-safe items and nontoxic paint.
  19. Memory keeper: An old shoebox is perfect for those greeting cards or old love letters you can't part with.
  20. Kitty litter box: It may not be pretty, but shallow boxes are perfect for kitty litter. Line with newspaper or fit with plastic sheeting for extra protection.
  21. Table base: Display space is always at a premium during a yard sale or garage sale. Use boxes to keep your merchandise off the floor and closer to eye level. Boards bridging the tops of upturned boxes can optimize space.
  22. Puppet stage: Get creative with your kids on a lazy winter Sunday. Create a puppet stage from a repurposed box and decorate the backdrop with wallpaper scraps, gift wrap or paint. (See also "Cheap birthday party ideas for your kids.")
  23. Pinhole camera: Create that vintage photo look by capturing your digital images through a pinhole punctured in a cardboard box.
  24. Halloween costume: Become a robot, knight or big piece of wrapped candy by using cardboard boxes as the foundation of next year's Halloween costume.
  25. Oil spill mat: Catch oil drips before they have a chance to stain your garage floor. A broken-down cardboard box provides two layers of hassle-free protection.
  26. Dangerous sled: I'm not advocating this one for the kids (or for anyone with a tree-filled yard and a penchant for SWI -- sledding while intoxicated). But in optimal circumstances, a flattened box makes a great on-the-spot sled. A little extra ski or snowboard wax makes for a white-knuckle ride.
  27. Floor protectors and furniture movers: Cardboard is a perfect hardwood floor protector. Cut out discs that fit under your couch and chair legs to prevent scrapes and scratches. Moving large pieces on carpet can be made easier by placing cardboard under heavier pieces and sliding instead of pulling.
  28. Solar eclipse viewer: A la Dolores Claiborne -- use a cardboard box to make a safe solar eclipse viewer.
  29. Food storage: Gardeners can appreciate heavy-duty cardboard boxes during harvest time. Use them to transport produce to market or store potatoes in the pantry. Cardboard flats are great for large quantities of canned food -- just load and stack.
  30. Furniture making: Entire books have been written about crafting easy, cheap and light furniture from cardboard. It's not just for dorm rooms anymore. Cardboard furniture is becoming high art and eco-chic.

We've just scratched the surface of all the ways to rethink and reuse the cardboard box. What are some of the creative reuses you've thought of? What common box types have you found the perfect new use for? Share your ideas here and, for once, feel free to not think outside the box.


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