Corrugated boxes: The ultimate expression of a circular economy

A circular economy is created when the entire life cycle of a product is optimized for minimal environmental impact, all the way from raw materials through production and use, coming full circle to be reused or regenerated.

It begins with the use of renewable raw materials (trees). Part 1 of this article series covered the fundamental truth about corrugated boxes and trees: Corrugated, a natural product, is made from tree fiber, a renewable, natural resource. Private landowners grow trees used to make boxes, and each year they plant more than they harvest. Their stewardship ensures long-term preservation of land and wildlife, and even cleans the air, while furnishing material for the most efficient, versatile and sustainable packaging on earth.  

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Corrugated is fabricated entirely from renewable natural resources, using just three ingredients: wood fiber, water, and starch. The fiber comes from trees grown in sustainably managed forests and tree farms, and from old corrugated containers (OCC) – used boxes that have been recovered for recycling.

But the corrugated industry’s commitment to sustainability continues throughout box production, use and end-of-life, in truly circular fashion. Box companies work diligently to minimize environmental impact through continuous improvements in manufacturing technology. They constantly innovate to create packaging that helps CPGs and retailers achieve their own sustainability objectives, paying it forward to benefit all. Finally, the industry’s phenomenal recycling success ensures the boxes come full circle to be used as primary feedstock for new boxes.

That certainly fits the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (U.S. EPA’s) definition of a circular economy to a tee: One that “uses a systems-focused approach and involves industrial processes that are restorative or regenerative by design, enables resources and activities to maintain their highest value for as long as possible, and aims for waste elimination.” Here’s how the corrugated industry does it.

Clean manufacturing

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the most comprehensive way to quantify a product’s environmental impact, taking everything into account from raw materials to end-of-life (disposal). A credible LCA provides a snapshot and a benchmark for improvement based on verified facts, collected and analyzed by impartial, qualified third-party researchers, and peer-reviewed to further ensure objectivity and accuracy of conclusions.

The corrugated industry submits to periodic LCA studies performed to the highest standards, evaluating the life-cycle impacts of an average corrugated box, including those generated during the growing and harvesting of trees, box manufacturing, use and end of life. Over the years, these LCA reports show that box manufacturers are steadily replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy and continually reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as other impacts. The complete facts are available here.

Teamwork: Creating supply chain sustainability

Corrugated packaging is everywhere and certainly, standard sizes and configurations are ubiquitous – but corrugated is used in thousands of innovative configurations to perfectly protect, ship, and sell everything from industrial parts to consumer goods and yes – definitely food, beverages, and other items sold by grocery retailers. Corrugated boxes can be custom-designed to fit any product – using just the right amount of “cardboard” to safely protect merchandise through distribution, while minimizing package weight and preventing waste. Lighter-weight boxes make it possible to fit more on a truck without hitting freight limits, which eliminates wasted space. (No one wants to pay today’s prices to ship air!) Lightening the load to deliver more products with fewer shipments reduces fuel consumption and associated costs, helping alleviate supply-chain challenges (like current trucking shortages).

On top of logistics benefits, corrugated packaging is a merchandising workhorse. Recent technology improvements enable killer graphics to be printed on corrugated for a whole new “wow” factor that helps sell a product in store or elevate the purchasing experience of home delivery. Then, the consumer gets in on the act – engaging with the product and brand before sending the box back from whence it came –recycling it.

Recycling brings it home

Corrugated is the most-recycled packaging material on earth, and always has been. For the last decade, about 90 percent of corrugated produced in the U.S. has been successfully recovered and recycled, and the average box is made with a mixture of 52% recycled and 48% new fiber. In contrast, less than 9% of plastic gets recycled, and as everyone knows by now, the remainder lasts forever in landfills or worse, in oceans and waterways, inflicting grave harm on ecosystems and wildlife.

Meanwhile, growing e-commerce means more boxes are delivered directly to consumers, who then assume responsibility for what happens to them after use. Recycling is the obvious choice. It’s easy, and 94% of Americans have access to corrugated collection points. Since the used boxes are a necessary feedstock for manufacturing new ones, this recovery loop continues again and again.

And thus, the circle is complete. Learn more at www.corrugated.org.