Consider the Box
Over at Packaging World,
By Richard Romano
Published: February 13, 2013
The use of recycled-content corrugated boxes that underperform the aforementioned functions is the opposite of sustainability; for, when products aren’t sold because the packaging didn’t adequately protect or didn’t adequately persuade, all of the resources and energies consumed in the sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution of those products are squandered.Of course, not all corrugated boxes need to be superstrong; if you’re shipping pillows or Nerf balls, you can get away with a weaker box than if you were shipping computers, TVs, or weightlifting equipment. As for aesthetics, there may be in inner package that does the real selling, or the product may be sold online, where aesthetic packaging is irrelevant.
From a sustainability perspective, there is an inherent appeal to reducing the use of virgin feedstock. But sustainability is best evaluated through a holistic lens—whether that’s Life-Cycle Assessment, Cradle-to-Grave Analysis, or something similar. Conducting those evaluations for reliable results is a formidable undertaking under the best of circumstances; however, the degree of difficulty is notched up when it comes to recycled fibers and the corrugated boxes that incorporate them. That’s because a box’s recycled content is citable on a percent basis but not on a composition basis. A box can be said to contain a specified percent of recycled content, but the exact makeup of that content is—for all intents and purposes—unknowable.That is, fibers lose length and strength each time they are recycled, so paper fibers that are on their third, fourth, fifth go-round may be well-nigh unusable—think of a third- or fourth-generation photocopy. So when you have no idea what generation the recycled content is, you really have no idea how strong the box is, or what its performance properties are going to be. So
specifying a given percent of recycled content doesn’t guarantee consistency of the composition of that content, meaning that it doesn’t guarantee consistency of quality and performance. Not only do boxes differ across suppliers, they differ from the same supplier. That lack of standardization makes the use of standardized tests, such as Mullen and Edge-Crush Test, less reliable, in addition to imposing difficulties for organizations that certify corrugated boxes.Recycled content will never completely supplant virgin, at least not anytime soon, simply because there isn’t enough of it. And, as we can see, we really don’t want recycled to completely replace virgin. Finding the best balance between the two—and developing effective metrics to determine the quality of the recycled fiber—should be the objectives in this area.