One of my favorite parts of working for Global Green USA is our on-the-ground focus. This means we not only research and develop ideas about what practices could be more efficient and environmentally friendly, but we actually put these theories to the test. For our Recyclable Wholesale Packaging Program, we bring this pilot-based model to bear on a waste stream that is practically invisible to the average customer. The packaging used to ship food from farms, meat packers, and fishing wharves is nearly always unrecyclable—it is frequently wax-coated cardboard or polystyrene foam, neither of which can be recovered economically.
However, there are some corrugated boxes designed to be recyclable with regular cardboard (91% of which is recovered in the US, the most of any packaging stream). There is even a protocol for recyclability and repulpability which can be used to test water-resistant packaging and determine whether it can be baled and recycled with normal, uncoated corrugated cardboard. Now the only question remaining, and the question Global Green USA is working to answer, is this: Do the boxes that pass this protocol work for long-distance, ice-intensive shipping?
To find out, we reached out to a major grocer who expressed interest in eventually asking its suppliers to switch over to recyclable packaging for food shipments. For the grocer, this change could create a major increase in revenue: Post-consumer corrugated cardboard is a surprisingly valuable commodity, as long as it doesn’t have wax all over it. So, if recyclable boxes replaced the wax-coated ones, the grocer could sell its packaging waste instead of paying to send it to the landfill. If this change occurred nationwide, grocers and restaurants could save over $200 million.
To make sure the switch would work, the grocer asked Global Green to work with one of their key suppliers, NAFCO, to undertake a test of some recyclable corrugated boxes on their longest shipping route. Working with Coalition for Resource Recovery members Cascades Industrial Packaging and Interstate Container, we organized a donation of some recyclable boxes and shipped them over to NAFCO’s facility in Jessup, just outside Baltimore, Maryland.
In the early morning hours on a Saturday, staff from NAFCO, Cascades, and Global Green USA (that was me) packed the recyclable, water-resistant boxes with about 10 lbs. of ice per box. We got them stacked and wrapped up on the pallet, and put into the cooler. Later that day they would then begin their 4-day, 500-mile journey from Jessup to a grocery store in Boston. Every box used in the test was recyclable, replacing the standard unrecyclable polystyrene boxes.
A few days later, I convened with the folks from Cascades, Interstate Container, and a grocer representative at one of the grocer’s locations to see the results of the test. Here were the main performance concerns:
1) Will the box leak as some of the ice inevitably melts? 2) Will the box remain un-smashed, despite being filled with ice and stacked in a wet, bumpy truck for several days? 3) Will the box maintain a temperature low enough to keep most of the ice frozen until it arrives at the store?
We walked into the cooler at the grocery store for the moment of truth—and we saw excellent results. The boxes were all intact, none were leaking, and they were still full of ice, even after their long journey. The grocer was very pleased with the results, and even took a few sample boxes with him to show to other seafood suppliers. Success!
As for me, I’ll be leaving Boston in a few days to head back to sunny California and continue to spread the word about the recyclable boxes that can survive an arduous trip, save money, and ultimately replace nearly all of the unrecyclable packaging currently being used. I’ll also be working to coordinate the next recyclable box pilot in the series—from harvest and transport logistics to the final grocery delivery.
By testing recyclable boxes using a range of shipping routes, we can help build confidence among grocers and food suppliers in preparation for a wide-scale transition from unrecyclable to recyclable boxes. Stay tuned!
For field updates and news from Lily Kelly, follow her on Twitter @LilyKellyGG.