That means the packaging is more protective, ensuring suppliers’ quality for its customers, and more efficiency: Smaller packaging means postal and delivery workers can fit more packages on trucks, which reduces carbon emissions from gas and saves time.
Clients play a role in efficiency, too. Amazon now 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 says, it 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. The company has also invested $10 million in the Closed Loop Infrastructure Fund to improve recycling for 3 million homes in the United States. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Target spokesman Brian Harper-Tibaldo said the company 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.
“Target is committed to using resources responsibly, eliminating waste and minimizing our footprint,” Harper-Tibaldo said in an email. “All the cardboard Target uses within its operations is bundled and brought to local recycling vendors.”
Both Amazon and Target declined to share cardboard usage data. T.J. Maxx declined to comment on this story. Walmart and Gap representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
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,” Heidi Brock, president and chief executive of the American Forest and Paper Association, said in an emailed statement. “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 of its waste materials, including old corrugated containers (industry speak for used cardboard boxes), mostly to countries in Southeast Asia and Mexico. 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. Those declines intensified last year during the U.S.-China trade war: Fiber exports, mostly from old cardboard boxes, dipped 3.1 million tons to its lowest volume since 2006, according to Resource Recycling.
That meant the industry had to step up efforts to process more of those recycled fibers domestically. Brock said that the containerboard 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 in recycling. Meanwhile, three new recycled containerboard mills are expected to be built over the next two years, with a $4.1 billion investment in manufacturing to continue recovering fiber for reuse, Brock said.
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.