From groceries to gadgets, corrugated boxes have always been the predominant shipping container trusted to transport all kinds of products. Cardboard boxes are being deposited on doorsteps across America in record numbers! But what about the consequences of all that packing material?
Well, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of e-commerce transactions increased by more than 15 percent in 2016, and the e-commerce industry has doubled in the last five years to $350 billion annually. This trend will only continue to rise as consumers continue to get addicted to the convenience and online retailers begin to streamline the process to get orders to the customer in record time. So you would think that this probably means the use of more cardboard. Or does it?
The fact is, while more boxes are now visible to consumers, studies show that less corrugated material is being used to deliver products to retailers. The amount of corrugated packaging being produced is quite stable and still below its 1999 peak production volume. So the good news is, the growth of e-commerce is not increasing the amount of corrugated going to waste.
We have probably all experienced the frustration of ordering something small, like a tube of toothpaste, only to have it arrive in a cardboard box big enough to hold a large puppy. This frustration is not yours alone. Since 2009, Amazon customers have submitted 33 million packaging-related comments, ratings, and photographs to the company, according to the New York Times.
But as counter-intuitive as it may seem, e-commerce has not led to an overall increase in cardboard consumption in the US. In fact, over the last twenty years, e-commerce has evolved into a $300 billion business. As online shoppers buy ever more trivial items such as dental floss and eye drops, the mounds of cardboard boxes they amass have raised questions about the impact of e-commerce on the environment. Each of arrives in packaging, and those packaged products are placed in a cardboard box to be shipped out. Despite all this, the amount of cardboard shipped by US companies has actually decreased slightly since 1995.
How can cardboard production possibly decrease in the midst of an e-commerce shipping boom? Manufacturers, including e-commerce retailers, are reducing packaging in an effort to reduce costs. Some forego cardboard for shrink-wrap, like bottle water bound by plastic film instead of cardboard. The use of less corrugated material in shipping, due to the use of lighter materials or simply alternative and cheaper ideas on how to ship products, would help to explain why the amount of cardboard out in the world seems to remain consistent despite the overall increase in shipping.
Also, fewer shippers are using the “Russian doll” method of product transit, in which a series of smaller boxes are inside a large box. And, because more items are being shipped directly to consumers, fewer items are being boxed and shipped to retail stores inside of larger boxes, which may help explain the reduction in cardboard consumption as e-commerce is up.
Whatever the reason, the perception that online shopping has resulted in skyrocketing cardboard consumption isn’t backed up by the data.
Can’t We Recycle It All?
When considering sustainability, corrugated packaging is truly a guilt-free and responsible choice. Ninety percent of it is successfully recycled to make new paper products and that has been true for nearly three decades. As the corrugated recovery rate consistently exceeds that of all other packaging materials, the industry’s overall environmental footprint also continues to improve.
Meanwhile, the accelerating transition from traditional retail to omnichannel distribution shifts the placement of some responsibility for corrugated package’s end-of-life disposition; now that consumers are receiving more boxes, it’s more important than ever for them to recycle at home. Fortunately, 96 percent of Americans have access to corrugated recycling programs.
Making cardboard products with recycled materials uses less energy and creates fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. According to the EPA, in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, 89 million tons (80.7 million metric tons) of materials from cardboard to plastics were recycled or composted. Doing so reduced greenhouse-gas emissions in a move equivalent to eliminating the annual emissions of 38 million passenger cars.
Businesses can help by making sure they use boxes with the Corrugated Recycles imprint and by reinforcing the message wherever they can, building the use of recyclable packaging into their own sustainability efforts and brand communications.
Unfortunately, cardboard cannot be recycled indefinitely. Every time it is remade, the fibers get shorter. After five to seven recycling loops, the fibers become too short to bond together into cardboard. By adding new pulp during the recycling process, any remaining usable fibers can still be incorporated into a new product — paper, for instance. In this way, a portion of every cardboard box lives on.
What Are the Advantages of Cardboard Packaging?
Cardboard is commonly used as a packaging material for shipping items. There are several advantages to using cardboard, as it protects items being shipped, is inexpensive and changes shape easily.
As packaging, cardboard protects items being shipped or moved. Corrugated cardboard often has multiple pieces of cardboard placed on top of each other to cushion fragile items, such as pieces of glass, televisions, computers or sensitive pieces of furniture with large flat surfaces. More cardboard placed over an item creates more cushioning and protection for dropped items. This also makes the item heavier and creates more packaging waste.
Cardboard is cheap to produce, and is usually made from recycled materials and doesn’t cost much money if purchased wholesale. Other packaging materials are made from plastic, wood or metal, all expensive materials that are often heavier then cardboard, which adds to shipping costs.
Cardboard can be sealed firmly as a package in a number of different ways. Use metal staples to hold cardboard together, as it is thick and doesn’t easily tear if a package is dropped or falls to the ground. The surface of cardboard packaging also attaches well to tape or glue, which may be used to seal the package, effectively keeping cardboard around an item until it is opened.
Some pieces of cardboard are incredibly rigid and heavy, to protect what they’re packaging, while other cardboard varieties can be wrapped around items so that material isn’t wasted and the package isn’t bulky or difficult to ship or store. Cardboard that is malleable and can be effectively wrapped around most shapes can be found online.
Compared to other packaging types, the major advantage of cardboard boxes lies in recycling. In the US, over 90% of cardboard packaging is recycled. It is no different in other parts of the world. So it is not surprising that cardboard is the most convenient, but also the simplest for packaging products and gifts.
The FLEX Logistics Team is Here to Help!
Our team understands the importance of getting your products to the market. That is why we aim to understand your business and build lasting relationships with you and your team. Whether you are looking to add a new warehouse to your existing operations, growing and need to increase your distribution efforts, or starting a new company, FLEX has the solutions to meet your supply chain needs.
Contact us today to discuss your current and future warehousing and logistics needs. We will work together with you to understand your requirements and develop a solution that will set you up for future success.