Differences Between Paperboard & Cardboard

By Allen Gagle

Updated September 26, 2017

i Big cardboard background image by Aliaksei Hintau from Fotolia.com

When we think of packaging, we usually think of paperboard and cardboard, and there are moments when we may even interchange the two. Oftentimes we think they are the same thing, however, even if both are paper products, they differ in many ways. Sure they have some similarities being paper, but they have differences in quality, how they are constructed, how each is recycled and of course, what each material is used for.


In terms of its quality, paperboard has a more complicated manufacturing process, as it goes through a series of steps to enhance its look and feel. Also known as boxboard, paperboard has different grades for different specific uses. There is bleached paperboard and coated unbleached kraft paperboard as well as recycled paperboard. Some are also coated with polyethylene resin for wet strength food packaging, which are used to package liquid food products such as milk or juices. One of the differences between cardboard and paperboard is that cardboard processing is much simpler. It is usually just made of 100 percent recycled cardboard with no complicated coloring or waxing requirements.


With its weight, paperboard is typically lighter because it uses only a single layer of boxboard pressed together, which is used for packaging smaller, much lighter food items like cereal or everyday products such as tissue boxes. Cardboard, with its heavy-duty material, is made of several layers of paper on one side, sandwiching corrugated or waffle-like texture in the middle and another multiple layer of paper on the other side. Since it is thicker and less likely to tear or break, it is used for packaging bigger bulkier items such as furniture and appliances, and it is most reliable when mailing items due to its cushioning quality. It is not easily destroyed even if it gets wet, and it will usually take time to damage cardboard material in comparison to paperboard.


Since paperboard and cardboard are both paper material, they can be recycled, but cardboard boxes are much easier to recycle in comparison to paperboard. Since cardboard boxes are free of wax or kaolin clay, they are pressed into bales and transferred to manufacturers directly, so they can be shredded and mixed with water to create new fiber for new cardboard products. No sorting is required unless cardboard boxes are contaminated with food remnants such as grease or oil. Paperboard, on the other hand, has a more complicated recycling process. Seeing as it is often used to contain liquid and other food products, and most of the time will contain foil or wax, it will have to undergo a de-waxing and de-foiling process before it goes into a recycling machine. This type of paper product should not be mixed with cardboard when brought to recycling centers and is usually mixed with regular paper, or if wet or soiled, with compost.

In Summary

In essence, a difference of paperboard and cardboard is that paperboard is more expensive to manufacture than cardboard due to its printing and color requirement for end users. Cardboard is usually used “as is” with regard to color. It has no complicated color requirements and its end use is more as a cardboard box for packaging. Since paperboard and cardboard are both utilized differently and one cannot really be used for the other’s purpose, it all comes down to how these two types of material are to be used. The bottom line is paperboard packaging is used to contain food products and smaller items compared to cardboard boxes, which are used for bulkier, heavier items.