The fate of cardboard boxes in the US rests in the hands of consumers more than it ever has been before. In the past, brick-and-mortar retailers handled much of the leftover packaging from shipments. Malls and grocery stores usually send big bales of used but relatively clean cardboard to recycling programs so that they can be made into new boxes. Now, the rise of e-commerce, which started before the pandemic, has shifted more responsibility onto shoppers to properly dispose of boxes so that they can be recycled. Boxes are piling up on residential curbsides instead of at retail stores.
The pandemic has only accelerated this shift, which experts expect to continue even after COVID-19 is under control. One of the largest waste collection companies in the US, Republic Services, saw as much as a 25 percent increase in waste it picked up from households last year — after the volume it picked up from commercial customers dropped by up to 30 percent when pandemic-induced lockdowns began. The company says it’s even had to change its equipment so that it can capture smaller boxes from e-commerce in addition to the larger packaging used to send goods to stores.
When cardboard winds up at a person’s house instead of at a store, there’s a bigger chance that it could be tossed in the trash or otherwise become too dirty to recycle. “The concern is that when you have more [cardboard] transitioning to the home, it becomes more of an individual choice for consumers whether they recycle it,” says Rachel Kenyon, senior vice president at the Fibre Box Association, a trade group representing packaging manufacturers. “We really want to encourage consumers to recycle because we do need that fiber back. It does help us to make another box again.”