Thinking Outside the Box

Cardboard and fiber markets, part 2

by | Jan 6, 2020

“Thanks to my mother, not a single cardboard box has found its way back into society. We receive gifts in boxes from stores that went out of business twenty years ago.” ― Erma Bombeck

Why should we keep recycling cardboard?

We’re going to continue to hear a lot more about the “Triple Bottom Line.” As consumer concern about climate change and the environment continues to increase, more and more business leaders have begun to think sustainably. The triple bottom line – people, planet, and profit – includes the social and environmental impacts of a company.

At the 2019 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference Europe in Barcelona this month, management consultant David Powlson, said paper recycling has remained important. “The amount of paper recycled over the last decade globally is equivalent to the size of a forest the size of the entire EU. If we didn’t recycle paper, we would need to harvest a forest the size of Sweden each year.”

Cardboard is made of paper, which is made of wood fibers. The production of one ton of virgin cardboard (material that doesn’t contain recycled cardboard) requires three tons of wood. According to Earth 911, recycling one ton of cardboard eliminates 9 cubic yards of landfill space.

Studies suggest that this material can represent as much as 40% or more of solid waste in a retail establishment and 15% or more of solid waste generated in an office setting. A small convenience store is estimated to produce between 700-1000 pounds of OCC per month, while grocery supermarkets generate between 8-30 tons, and department stores 8-20 tons during that time span. (source: the balance small business)

As more usable cardboard is recovered, less goes to landfill. This reduction results in lower methane emissions. The corrugated industry reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 35% between 2006 and 2014 as a result of increased recycling of OCC and its use as a fuel in place of fossil fuels. In addition to saving trees and air quality, recycling OCC reduces energy and water usage.

What else can we do?

Sustainable packaging is becoming a higher priority for both brands and consumers as millennials continue to push brands to be more socially and environmentally responsible. Ask your packaging supplier a few simple questions about their manufacturing process and how much recycled material they use.

The term “eco-friendly packaging” has become more than a buzzword as companies like McDonald’s make changes in their packaging. The global fast-food giant recently announced that by 2025 all of its guest packaging will come from renewable, recycled, or certified sources.

Though amazon.com is often seen as the villain in cardboard usage, their Frustration-Free Packaging declares that all packaging is made of 100% recyclable materials; easy to open; and designed to ship products in their original packaging, reducing waste by eliminating the need for an additional shipping box. As a specific example, the company is working with other companies to develop better packaging: e.g. Hasbro and Tide.

There are also some simple ideas for reusing boxes at home and in the office:

  1. Compost them.
  2. Protect floors when painting.
  3. Make drawer dividers.
  4. Use them for storage.
  5. Make a cat playhouse.
  6. Keep them for shipping. If you own a business, or even if you just send a lot of packages, you can easily turn your cardboard moving boxes into shipping boxes. Hold on to what you think you can use, collapsing them to save space. When it’s time to ship something, simply set the box back up and use it as needed.

But, seriously, what’s ahead?
Dips and Plateaus,” a March 2019 article from Recycling Today, provides some explanation to what they call the “roller coaster ride” of the old corrugated cardboard recycling market:

                 In early 2017, U.S. prices surged to decade highs following a surge of exports to China, but prices
                 crashed to decade lows in late 2017 and in 2018 as China began severely restricting imports of
                 recovered paper and announced its intention to ban all “solid waste” imports by 2020.

                 More recently, demand for finished paper products in China has significantly slowed because of the
                 weakening economy (further reducing Chinese demand for recovered paper). Additionally, the
                 country enacted a 25 percent tariff on U.S. recovered paper imports effective Jan. 1 [2019].

The article goes on to say, “Given the uncertainty surrounding the future of Chinese OCC demand, OCC prices are understandably hard to predict. We think stable prices are the most sensible expectation, particularly given our expectation of stable Chinese import levels and flat to slightly declining domestic OCC demand.”

The figures in Recycling Today’s article, “Working Through the Worst of Times,” give a clear picture of the market’s changes:

OCC pricing*
Sept. 2019: $25.00
Feb. 2019: $56.00
Oct. 2018: $70.28
Feb. 2018: $93.89
*Average U.S. dollars per short ton for open market delivery as reported by Fastmarket RISI’s PPI Pulp & Paper Week. (source: Recycling Today). The article continues:

Analysts and recyclers alike say recovered fiber prices likely hit a bottom this past summer and the only place left to go is up. However, it likely will be a slow ride..  Factors such as a possible recession and the continued trade war could slow gains in recovered fiber pricing.

                 “Forecasting for 2020, there may be a little upward trend in pricing,” a national mill operator says.
                  “It won’t be significant—a lot of that has to do with how the economy does. We’re not real bullish
                   on 2020; we don’t think things will go through the roof. There are a lot of big question marks
                   about the future of where the economy is going to go.

M-PASS’s Chris Witherspoon: “M-PASS is continuously monitoring the markets and will provide updated news and predictions to our clients. Before prices start to go up again, however, we will have to make adjustments to our income predictions.”

M-PASS President Lorraine White added, “We are committed to keep our clients apprised of changes in the markets and how the changes impact their (triple) bottom line and their efforts toward environmental sustainability. “Most importantly,” she added, “I want to reiterate that we are not taking cardboard and fiber to landfills and are looking for other solutions.

Read more about it …

A Fiber Free Fall,” Resource Recycling, August 2019

Dips and Plateaus,” Resource Recycling, March 2019

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s website has a number of articles about sustainable packaging like:

The Facts about Corrugated Sustainability

The State of the Global Paper Industry 2018

The Paper Mill Directory of the World – 1884

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