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The Productive 204 Year History of Cardboard Boxes

Amazon shipped over 50 million items on Cyber Monday. On 11.11.2020, Alibiba shipped over 2.8 billion parcels. That’s a ton of boxes. The cardboard box was invented in 1817 by M.Treverton & Son Co. and today we produce four hundred billion square feet of cardboard each year.

Alibaba shipped over 2.8 billion parcels on China’s 11.11 Single’s Day Holiday (Source: Synced)

What is the history of cardboard boxes? Paperboard boxes are the precursor cardboard; they were flimsy but good enough for 1817. Until a German inventor thought to sandwich a corrugated inner medium in between two pieces of paperboard. Manufacturers then got better at producing them and companies found uses.

Kellogs popularized the use of paperboard boxes in 1840, they’ve have been a stable of modern society.

The term cardboard refers to heavy duty paperboard. First patented in 1856, the board can be made of paper or paper-like materials. By 1890 companies began producing pre-cut cardboard that could be folded into boxes. By 1895 the first cardboard manufacturing facility emerged in the United States. And 8 years later, UPS was founded as the American Messenger Company focused on delivering packages.

What came before corrugated paper?

The function of cardboard was used by wooden crates and other wooden materials. The Han Dynasty in China would lay out the bark of Mulberry trees to dry, and then use these sheets to preserve food. These sheets of wood were the inspiration for modern paper, as the Han Dynasty also is credited with inventing such paper. This ancient cardboard was used as a material to print on, as it was not supportive enough for shipping and transport.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the full use of cardboard became apparent as reinforced corrugated paper sheets increased the strength of cardboard sheets. Mass produced cardboard was first used for consumer goods like cigarettes, cosmetics, and biscuits. With an addition of a wax lining, paperboard become effective at preserving dry foods like crackers and pasta. From here the sales of cardboard exploded.

Manufacturing Cardboard Boxes

Before cardboard, wooden crates held materials for shipping. Wooden crates were sturdy but heavy, making them an added expense as the wooden creates weighed down the boats and trucks that moved them.

Today, cardboard is the simplest ways to move things from point A to point B. 93% of all cardboard boxes used in the United States are manufactured in the United States.

The corrugated paper used in manufacturing cardboard boxes was first patented in 1856 by Albert Jones in New York. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that boxes were used for shipping. And it wasn’t until 1890 when pre-cut boxes began being manufactured on a large scale that the packing and shipping industry really took off.

By 1893 machines were making thousands of boxes per minute. Nowadays, manufacturers pump out over 400 billion cubic feet of cardboard each year. Cheap packaging led to demand for packaging carriers like UPS.

As you can see, the board itself sandwiches a corrugated inner medium between two single sheets of paper liner. An adhesive binds everything together. The corrugated inner medium is sometimes called a fluting.

Cardboard boxes must be rugged, and the degree to which they can handle weight depends on the structure. The fluting can change in order to create more rugged structures. The arches in the fluting add structure and act as an insulator, meaning boxes wont melt when left on a sidewalk in summer.

History of Boxes – Production & Recycling

Of the 100 billion cardboard boxes used in the United States each year, a big chunk of boxes are recycled. You can read more about the recycling of cardboard boxes and waste in this article by the NYtimes, who did an excellent deep dive into the history of boxes and the waste that comes from them.

  • Recycled boxes use 30% less energy than normal manufacturing
  • Recycled boxes produce 50% less sulphur dioxide
  • Cardboard is the most recycled packaging type in the world
  • Most cardboard boxes already are made from 75% recycled material
  • It takes 14 days for an old box to become a new box
  • The same size today is 25% lighter than it was in the year 2000
  • Recovering paper and cardboard has saved over a billion cubic yards of landfill space since 1993
  • Recycling one ton of boxes saves 46 gallons of oil, 17 trees, and 7000 gallons of water

21st Century Cardboard Production Stagnates

Shockingly, the growth of e-commerce and the onslaught of mail traveling, there has not been a dramatic increase in box production. That’s good for the environment, but also for consumers that end up paying packing and shipping costs. The modern history of boxes is about doing more with less and recycling more.

Screen Shot 2021 09 28 at 1.20.02 PM
Source: U.S. Census, Graphic Retrieved from QZ

Since consumers care about waste and recycling, businesses have adapted. Product designers work to reduce the packaging of their products, managers work to reduce spending money on excess boxes, and warehouse managers try to ship things in the least number of boxes as possible.

A manufacturer may opt to use reusable packaging for transport and shipping or other moves to eliminate cardboard all together. You may have noticed at Costco or other big box retailers that pallets of products now don’t have any boxes, but instead just have products shrink wrapped together. These decisions reduce cardboard use.

Still over half of all cardboard use has nothing to do with e-commerce and is dominated by agriculture. And there’s no end in sight as no alternative packaging material has been invented that competes on cost, scale, and effectiveness of corrugated paper cardboard boxes.

Who knew the history of boxes was so interesting? And if you didn’t find this interesting, that’s alright too. We hope you take a second look next time that box lands on your doorstep and wonder about the lifecycle of that box. Be sure to recycle the next box you get!

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