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How Big Cardboard is Handling the 2020 Box Boom

Updated: Aug 29

Amazon relies on proprietary artificial intelligence to calculate the best fit for orders, which sometimes means using an envelope instead of a box. As a result, Amazon has reduced outbound packaging by 33 percent in the past five years, eliminating more than 915,000 tons of packaging material — the equivalent of 1.6 billion shipping boxes.

Target has been recycling cardboard from stores since the 1960s. In 2019, the Minneapolis-based retailer recycled more than 514,564 tons of cardboard, up 4.5 percent from 2018 and nearly 6 percent from 2017, some of it through its partnership with a paper mill. According to the company’s 2020 corporate responsibility report, 51 percent of Target’s owned-brand paper-based retail packaging are sourced from sustainably managed forests.

Now, with the transition to more cardboard boxes showing up on doorsteps rather than in stores, the industry is relying on more consumers to keep up with recycling. More paper by weight is recovered for recycling from municipal solid waste streams than glass, plastic, steel and aluminum combined. As more people stay at home, it’s a good reminder that the box at your doorstep is designed to be recycled.

The United States historically has exported much old corrugated to other countries. But trade data shows money made from exporting recyclables has tumbled since China enacted restrictions on U.S. imports in 2018, and some countries followed suit. Fiber exports, mostly from old cardboard boxes, dipped 3.1 million tons to its lowest volume since 2006.

That meant the industry had to step up efforts to process more of those recycled fibers domestically. Brock said the container board industry — of which corrugated boxes make up the most — increased production 3.8 percent between January and October in 2020, year over year, and saw a 4.1 percent increase in recycling.

Cardboard reuse has come a long way since 1993, the year the three-sided recycling symbol first appeared on boxes, when just over half of all boxes were recycled, Kenyon said. In 2019, the recovery rate stood at 92 percent. Today, the cardboard box landing on your doorstep typically includes about 50 percent recycled fibers.