Project Launch: Follow That Box

If all produce boxes were recycled, it would save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the toughest environmental problems can be almost invisible, and this is frequently true when it comes to boxes used to transport goods from producers to retailers, known as transfer packaging. The average customer never sees transfer packaging--it is used for shipping and delivery and never reaches the shelf. There is no easy way for a customer to know what kinds of boxes are used to transport the everyday products they buy, or where they go after their job is done.

If transfer packaging were all being recycled, this wouldn’t be a problem. But poultry, meats, seafood, and produce are frequently shipped to restaurants and grocery stores in a corrugated box containing a wax moisture barrier that renders it un-recyclable. The Fibre Box Association, the primary corrugating packaging trade association in the US, estimates that 5% of all corrugated boxes are coated with wax. That means that 1.36 million tons of valuable fiber waste are landfilled or burned in the U.S. each year.

However, recyclable coatings for boxes are commercially available, and a recyclability certification standard has been developed by the Fibre Box Association. According to 2009 EPA data, if all coated corrugated wholesale transfer boxes were designed for recycling and recycled instead of landfilled or burned, we would reap a greenhouse gas savings of 3.5-4.3 million mtCO2e. This would be the equivalent to removing hundreds of thousands of passenger vehicles from the road and, according to BioCycle's tipping fee estimates, U.S. grocers and restaurateurs could save $57 million in disposal costs every year.

This logo, developed by the Fibre Box Association, indicates that a box is recyclable.

Our Coalition for Resource Recovery (CoRR) team aims to accelerate the development and commercialization of high-performing, cost-effective recyclable box solutions, and our next step is to get a firsthand understanding of the how these boxes are used, and why. This year, CoRR is hosting a series of tours for companies in the business of box and coating production to “Follow That Box” through the produce growing, packing, cooling, and shipping processes. By creating the opportunity for box makers to visit and hear from a variety of farmers and shippers, we will help them better understand the on-the-ground travails of transfer packaging, and subsequently develop and market more high-performance, recyclable products for their customers to use.

CoRR is bringing box makers and buyers together to share insight and ideas, and by doing so we hope to facilitate development of more robust, lower-cost, and ecologically sound boxes to bring produce from the farm to the store. The next step will be to initiate pilot projects to test and promote high-quality recyclable boxes, and ultimately shift the industry away from wax and toward sustainable solutions.