As stated in an article on theverge.com, the fate of cardboard and corrugated boxes in the U.S. rests in the hands of consumers more than it ever has been before. In the past, brick-and-mortar retailers handled much of the leftover packaging from shipments. Malls and grocery stores usually send big bales of used but relatively clean cardboard (folding cartons) and corrugated to recycling programs so that they can be made into new boxes. Now, the rise of e-commerce, which started before the pandemic, has shifted more responsibility onto shoppers to properly dispose of boxes so that they can be recycled. Boxes are piling up on curbsides instead of at retail stores.
The pandemic has only accelerated this shift, which experts expect to continue even after COVID-19 is under control. One of the largest waste collection companies in the US, Republic Services, saw as much as a 25 percent increase in waste it picked up from households last year — after the volume it picked up from commercial customers dropped by up to 30 percent when pandemic-induced lockdowns began. The company says it’s even had to change its equipment so that it can capture smaller boxes from e-commerce in addition to the larger packaging used to send goods to stores.
When paper based packaging winds up at a person’s house instead of at a store, there’s a bigger chance that it could be tossed in the trash or otherwise become too dirty to recycle. “The concern is that when you have more [cardboard] transitioning to the home, it becomes more of an individual choice for consumers whether they recycle it,” says Rachel Kenyon, Senior Vice President at the Fibre Box Association, a trade group representing packaging manufacturers. “We really want to encourage consumers to recycle because we do need that fiber back. It does help make another box again.”
The corrugated cardboard used to ship the things people buy in stores and online is remarkably salvageable. Virgin cardboard can be recycled to make more of the same material up to seven times. Once the fiber degrades, it can be used to make paperboard, which is used in things like cereal boxes. The average box now contains about 50 percent recycled material, according to Kenyon.
Recycling is no substitute for cutting down on waste in the first place, and online retailer behemoths still have a lot of work to do on that front. But cardboard has a much higher recycling rate compared to other packaging materials. The overall recycling rate for materials, including paper, glass, and plastics, in the US was about 32 percent in 2018, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The recycling rate for cardboard boxes, on the other hand, has hovered close to 90 percent since 2011.
To keep those rates high, the cardboard industry will need shoppers to recycle the increasing number of boxes from the record amounts of box shipments made during the pandemic, according to Kenyon. By last November, the containerboard packaging industry saw a 3.6 increase in production, according to the American Forest & Paper Association.
In the past couple of years, new paper mills have already come online, and others are on the way. The demand for more boxes — fueled by a pandemic-driven boom in e-commerce — is also helping once-struggling recycling programs stay afloat.