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As e-commerce grows, where do all those brown boxes go?

October 8, 2020

min read

If you still get a small thrill from coming home to a package, you’re not alone. With more and more U.S. consumers opting to do their shopping online, and with domestic online sales projected to hit $645 billion in 2020, the sight of carboard boxes piled high on consumers’ doorsteps is only becoming a more common sight.

But as more and more people skip the store in favor of online shopping, the demand for quality corrugated boxes to safely transport products from retailers to residences also continues to grow. And with an increase in e-commerce comes even greater potential for physical landfill waste in the form of brown boxes.  

The good news, however, is that industry today is more focused than ever on giving these used boxes new life. And one of the ways papermaker Georgia-Pacific — a subsidiary of Koch Industries — is rising to meet this growing need is by recycling old corrugated cardboard into new products. 

“Recycling has long been an important part of our paper-making process,” said Marc Forman, president of Georgia-Pacific Recycling. “As a paper-based packaging producer, we are not only committed to responsible use of our resources, but we also count on recycled fiber as an important part of our fiber supply.”

Every year, Georgia-Pacific collects approximately 5 million tons of recovered paper products, or about 250,000 truckloads, from large retailers, grocery stores and residences for recycling.

In 2019, about 2.1 million tons of this paper consisted of old corrugated containers, or OCC as it’s known in the industry. And roughly 1 million tons of this OCC was ultimately turned into new paper for cardboard boxes at Georgia-Pacific mills.

If that sounds like a lot of cardboard, it is. To put it into perspective, Georgia-Pacific facilities recycle enough corrugated boxes every two days to completely fill a 20,000-seat basketball arena from floor to ceiling.

It’s all in line with where the industry is heading. For eight years, the recovery rate for corrugated containers had regularly hovered around 90%, but that number jumped to more than 96% in 2018, per the American Forest and Paper Association.

“Even with a reliable supply of recycled fiber, we take to heart our commitment to use our resources responsibly,” said Brian Reilly, vice president of research and technology at the Georgia-Pacific Innovation Institute®. “That’s why we also focus on doing more with less … engineering packaging that meets our customers’ needs without using more fiber than necessary.”  

If the notion of a paper company actively working to use less of the very same shipping material it produces seems counter-intuitive, it’s actually the goal of the Innovation Institute — to produce lighter, stronger boxes more efficiently, using fewer resources.

Here, scientists are working to develop better boxes for some of the world’s biggest retailers. The objective is to create shipping solutions that provide an optimum level of protection for precious cargo that can endure all kinds of conditions, while keeping box size and wasted space to a minimum.

Georgia-Pacific boxes

This doesn’t just help keep shipping costs and fuel consumption down as packages make their way to you — it ensures products like televisions, laptops and all other consumer goods reach their intended destinations intact and ready to be unboxed.

There’s a lot of engineering that goes into every corrugated package, at every stage. But at the end of the day, it’s this attention to engineering that makes all the difference when safely shipping those online orders to your doorstep.


Learn more about what Georgia-Pacific is doing with these boxes to create a better, more sustainable future.