Each holiday season, shoppers buy more gifts online than the year before — not surprising, given continuous growth in e-commerce year-round. In December, surging residential package deliveries draw increased attention. As people notice boxes everywhere, it’s natural to wonder: Is e-commerce increasing packaging use and waste? 

New Distribution Paradigm 

Actually, corrugated packaging production tracks more closely to manufacturing output and sales than to shifting distribution channels. Before e-commerce existed, consumers did all of their shopping in physical stores. The products purchased at retail were delivered behind the scenes in bulk shipments and case-loads. It took fewer, but larger boxes to deliver products to stores; and it takes more, but smaller boxes to deliver unit-level packages to individual consumers. 

Despite this change in box sizes, evidence shows that e-commerce has not significantly affected the total volume of corrugated production, which peaked in 1999 and then slowly declined and dipped more sharply during the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Since then, it has recovered along with the U.S. economy, growing modestly at about 2-3 percent annually. 

Consumer Responsibility

What has changed with e-commerce is that more boxes are being emptied in consumers’ homes instead of in the back rooms of retail establishments. 

Retailers learned long ago that recovering corrugated for recycling is the way to go. Old corrugated containers (OCC) are compacted, baled, picked up by haulers and sold to recycling mills to make new paper products. These practices improve retailers’ bottom lines by reducing waste disposal costs and helped raise corrugated recovery to where it is today, at about 90 percent — far more than any other packaging material.

Now that more boxes are shipped to consumer households instead, the decision to recycle those empty boxes falls more often to the individual.

Bringing It Home

Fortunately, most U.S. households have access to OCC recycling programs. A typical community recycling program accepts cardboard with other recyclable materials, mixed or separated, often at curbside. Some municipalities provide small blue bins for collecting recyclables; others equip each household with a big, wheeled cart to be placed at the curb beside nonrecyclable trash. In some rural communities, drop-off centers are set up for recycling collection.

The corrugated industry has been actively involved in the creation and success of these programs since the 1990s — when recycling first became mainstream and the industry introduced the Corrugated Recycles symbol to signify that the package could be recycled. Today, the symbol is printed on the bottom of most corrugated boxes, a reminder that’s becoming more important for consumers as home delivery continues to grow.

The corrugated industry has been a recycling leader and champion of sustainability for decades, honoring a long-standing commitment to provide a high-performance, recyclable, environmentally friendly packaging material that serves its purpose throughout its lifecycle. By remembering to recycle the boxes that deliver gifts to their doorsteps this holiday season, online shoppers can breathe easy, knowing they’ve done their part.

Learn more at corrugated.org