Transforming old cardboard boxes into CleanFiber insulation nets $10 million

This is the middle the holiday season here in the US, that magical time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when stores are filled with corpses and porches are filled with packages.

All these packages produce a lot of waste – from 33 million tons to 51 million tons annually, depending on the estimate. Most of it is recycled, but there is still a significant proportion that ends up in landfills.

One startup has a plan to reduce that share while reducing the carbon footprint of people’s homes. Based in Buffalo, CleanFiber takes used cardboard boxes and turns them into cellulose insulation that can be blown into the walls and attics of new and existing homes.

As far as building products go, cellulose insulation is pretty special. Because it is insulating, it reduces energy consumption. It is relatively high-performance and inexpensive. And it’s made almost entirely from recycled materials, which means it lowers the building’s carbon footprint, or how much pollution is wrapped up in the materials.

Typically, cellulose insulation is made by shredding old newspapers, but as the newspaper industry has declined over the past 20 years, so has the supply of newsprint.

“At one point, North America produced approximately 13 million tons of newsprint annually,” CleanFiber CEO Jonathan Strimling told Root Devices. Today, it’s “about 1 million tons and continuing to fall.”

Because of this decline, industry insiders became interested in using corrugated boxes instead of newsprint. But they knew that they could not reuse the same processes. Bales of newsprint are fairly homogeneous, while bales of old corrugated packaging are covered with shipping labels, plastic wrap and various types of tape. Simply crushing this and sending it through a pulp blower would spoil the job and make for some very unhappy installers.

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