I’m going to let you in on a secret about me. I get seriously giddy reusing packaging from other products in my crafting and handmade gifts. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but it’s such a rush! Why? Because they’re free. FREE craft supplies. How can you beat that? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love a good romp at Michaels as much as the next gal but my budget can hardly stand it. What is it about craft stores? They will break my budget even faster than Target will!
So, I try as much as possible to mine my materials from everyday life and one of the best places is packaging, particularly all the cardboard (aka paperboard, aka carton, aka chipboard) we all normally throw out or recycle. Bonus- reusing this stuff keeps it out of landfills! Cereal and butter packaging make great gift boxes; egg cartons can be great for supply holders or materials; paper tubes from toilet paper or paper towels make lots of awesome crafts, especially for kids.
But here’s the kicker- all of these items have held something or been near something that poses a risk for bacterial and viral growth (ew). Read about toilet aerosol plumes here. Since the dawning of the era of COVID 19, we are all a lot more aware of how viruses and bacteria live on surfaces and how important cleaning and disinfecting things are. Viruses aside, there are potential bacteria living near the cardboard rolls we love next to the toilet and kitchen sink. We can’t forget our old friends salmonella and e.coli too so any method we choose needs to eliminate a broad spectrum of germs.
But how do you wash cardboard? You can’t! Here is my quest to discover if you can clean and sanitize cardboard another way.
When we’re crafting to give, we become the manufacturer, and need to do everything we can to ensure the best and safest final products possible in the home environment.
Disclaimer- I’m not a scientist or a medical professional. But, from one germaphobe to another, I’m hoping all my research and experience gives you the best guidance on how to safely gift your upcycled creations to those you love.
First, some definitions
I realize like a lot of non-medical, non-science-y people, I use a lot of these terms interchangeably, but the distinctions are important. So first, a few definitions so we’re all on the same page.
- Microbes: A microscopic organism. They are not “good” or “bad,” just tiny organisms we can’t see.
- Germs: A “bad” microbe, including bacteria and viruses, but also fungi and protozoa, that cause a number of diseases.
- Bacteria: Microscopic one-celled organisms. Some of them cause illness but some are helpful.
- Virus: A microscopic organism that invades living cells to reproduce. Many cause illness.
And a few more, courtesy of the CDC,
- Clean: A basic process removing soil, microbes, and other debris from surfaces using detergent and water in order to make a surface safe to use.
- Disinfect: Using heat or chemicals to destroy microorganisms…but not all of them. This destroys all but the hardiest of microbes (like bacterial spores).
- Sanitize: Reducing the number of bacterial contaminants to safe levels according to public health requirements. Commonly used with substances applied to inanimate objects.
- Sterilize: Killing all microbes on an object.
Main Ways to Kill Microbes
First, as we saw above, science has come up with a lot of terms about killing microbes, and they’ve also thought of many ways to go about it. But which one is good for our gifts?
- Soap and Water: Great for hands, not so great for paper products for obvious reasons.
- UV Light: UV light is great for killing harmful microbes but you need special light products for this and they can be really dangerous for casual home use. Unfortunately, the UV in sunlight alone won’t cut it.
- Time: Viruses can’t live without hosts for a very long time. The coronavirus that causes COVID 19 for example has not lived longer than 5 days on a surface without contact. That’s only applicable for viruses though, bacteria can survive a lot longer.
- Disinfecting Agents: These are your household or commercial-strength cleaning products and wipes. The labels of the products should tell you what they are effective against. These also include common agents such as bleach, Isopropyl or Ethyl Alcohol, and Hydrogen Peroxide but there are also plenty of brand names and other chemical solutions. The CDC has more details on each if you’re interested. There are plenty out there who will tell you to spray a disinfectant on your cardboard product and that’s enough to make it safe. This doesn’t work for us for three reasons:
- Most household disinfectants get the cardboard too wet and weaken the structure of the material making them difficult to craft with. They have to sit on the microbes for the recommended time in order to do any good which gives the chemical time to soak into your product.
- These chemical agents aren’t best if you’re planning to package a food or beverage product unless they’re labeled food safe.
- Remember your giftee and be mindful that some people are very sensitive to chemicals and home cleaners.
So…we need a better way.
So How Do We Sanitize Cardboard and Paperboard?
WE TURN UP THE HEAT!
Heat kills microbes (yay!). This is why we have to cook food to certain temperatures. For paperboard and cardboard, we can’t use hot water, but we can use the oven for dry heat. There are plenty of studies that tell us known temperatures that kill microbes in dry heat. Foodborne bacteria like salmonella won’t survive in temperatures past 165 degrees F. There have been some recent studies showing how to disinfect N95 masks in your home oven and these will work brilliantly for disinfecting our cardboard products too. This study successfully showed viruses dying at 212 degrees for 30 minutes, and other studies have even showed effective disinfecting at lower temps, including on the N95 masks, where they found viruses were gone at 158 degrees for 60 minutes.
Using an oven bag is optional as the oven temperature should rid the oven itself of the same microbes as it does the objects inside it. I do like to use the oven bag to collect all my tubes and boxes until I’m ready to put them in the oven so that way I know they haven’t spread any germs to any other surfaces outside of the oven. Plus, I can also ensure my oven and the air are protected from any possibility of icky aerosolized particles that get dispersed in the disinfecting process and contain any odors that come from the cardboard materials being heated.
THREE BIG CAUTIONS WHEN SANITIZING CARDBOARD IN THE OVEN:
- Make sure your paper products are clean and dry with no visible contamination to start. If there is visible contamination, do not reuse that item and instead dispose of it properly.
- Make sure your objects are far away from the oven walls and heating coils to prevent any possible ignition. Otherwise, clean and dry paper products should remain stable at these relatively low oven temperatures.
- Also caution- DO NOT use a chemical agent before the oven method as many of them are flammable. If you want to use multiple methods, always do the oven method first. Also, as always, please don’t ever mix disinfectants with each other.
I’ve personally settled on two methods:
- Dry Oven Heat. For a bundle of paperboard goods, it seems a pretty sure-fire (see what I did there?) method to ensure your paper goods are germ-free. 212 Degrees F for 30 minutes.
- Need it Faster? 70% or greater alcohol. I tried wiping a toilet paper roll down with alcohol, inside and out, and it seemed to work well. I like that you can see it get dark where you’ve wiped it so you know you have complete coverage, and it stays on for the 30 seconds necessary to do its germ-murder sanitize cardboard thing. It dried fast, clean, and with no lasting odor. Just remember, its very flammable so don’t use these in the oven after or around any open flame.
- Not in a hurry? Let everything just hang out in a climate-controlled dry place for a month or so. The longest virus to live on surfaces I saw in my research was the norovirus (stomach virus), which can live up to a few weeks on hard surfaces. But, if anyone in your house has had a stomach bug, I wouldn’t recommend even trying to upcycle the materials from those bathrooms.
So can you sanitize cardboard? It sure seems so based on all the research above. Obviously, without a lab and test results, we have to trust the studies, but I’m convinced enough to make these part of my practice. And please, check out the links and make sure to do your own research to find a method that fits your needs.
That’s a wrap 😉