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Columbia Business Monthly

The Simple Success of Corrugated Containers

By Dustin Waters

The cardboard box: despite being one of the most ubiquitous objects of modern times and a staple of practically all business, the name is a bit of a misnomer. 

The term “cardboard,” as used by industry insiders, refers to the thin, solid backing you might find in a notebook or cereal box. When you think of the fluted medium connecting an inner and outer lining, you are thinking of corrugated materials—the very same that make up the shipping containers that occupy warehouses, office spaces and doorsteps all across the country. 

“It was timelessly engineered a long, long time ago. It is fully recyclable. It's a renewable, green resource,” says Jim Bozard, founder and CEO of Charleston-based Coastal Corrugated, who has more than 40 years in the business. “If you think about all the things that have been improved and redesigned over the centuries, corrugated container material has survived it all.”

Originally used as supportive linings for men’s hats in the 1800s, corrugated paper was first patented for packaging purposes in 1871. Afterwards, it was used to cushion glassware. In 1894 corrugated paper in box form was first produced to transport items for Wells Fargo in New York City. Since that time, little has changed in the product’s overall design.

“It's evolved in the strength and the properties of it, but its basic design hasn't been improved on, and we're thrilled that nothing has changed,” says Bozard, whose business is finding the right container to meet a company’s needs. 

“We like to start from scratch and say, ‘OK, tell me how you use it. How long does this sit stacking? How long is it exposed to the air? How many miles does it travel?” says Bozard. “We're going to design the right board combination based on all of those factors to make sure there's no breakage, but at the same time you're not over-packing because you shouldn’t have to pay for more than what you need to get a product from point A to point B.”

With three facilities in South Carolina dedicated to producing corrugated materials, International Paper is a major player in the global packaging and shipping industry. Laurens, Georgetown, and Lexington are all home to International Paper plants producing corrugated boxes—giving the worldwide provider a heavy stake in South Carolina. 

“We are one of the world’s leading producers of renewable, fiber-based packaging, pulp, and paper. Our global team is committed to ensuring our businesses are safe, successful and sustainable for generations to come,” says Tom Ryan, director of corporate communications for

International Paper. “We have a tremendous workforce in South Carolina, which is critical to the success of International Paper. IP is one of the top exporters out of the ports of South Carolina. In 2019, we shipped 30,367 containers (730,000 tons) out of South Carolina ports.”

Data recently released by the Fibre Box Association shows that box shipments remained steady in 2019, with total annual shipments reported at 392 billion square feet. Dennis Colley, president and COO of the Illinois-based Fibre Box Association, attributes this consistent demand to two main trends among consumers. 

“It’s an exciting time to be in the corrugated industry. The rise of e-commerce, coupled with concerns about ocean plastics, have created greater awareness among consumers about packaging. They’ve also become a catalyst for packaging innovation,” says Colley. “The flexibility of a corrugated package to be any size, shape or form allows for a lot of creativity in box design while still maintaining supply chain performance requirements to ensure products arrive safely from manufacturers to store shelves and even direct to consumers’ doorsteps.”

One major advantage of corrugated shipping materials is their ability to be reused and recycled time and time again. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, consumption of old corrugated containers at mills in the United States increased by 611,000 tons in 2018 over the previous year, and recovery increased by more than 3.36 million tons. For Heidi Brock, American Forest and Paper Association president and CEO, this level of sustainability is an often overlooked success story.

“As e-commerce continues to grow, more corrugated boxes arriving at homes means more opportunities to recycle. The industry’s exceptional track record on corrugated recovery is a testament to consumers who recognize these boxes are not waste and an industry commitment to building infrastructure that turns recovered fiber into new products,” says Brock. “Corrugated boxes are made from recycled paper and continuously replanted trees, and recycled box fibers are reused at least seven times to make new products. When it comes to using paper products—including corrugated—our industry is proud of our commitment to sustainable and responsible production that helps keep forests as forests.”

 


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