Holidays brought to you by: cardboard

Dec 26, 2018

Holidays, Brought to You By is our series about all the stuff that’s become part of the culture and of the economy. Where did they come from and who thought of them?

'Tis the season for checking your doorstep every day for Amazon boxes. With so much of our gift purchases happening online these days, how well is the cardboard industry doing?

Ray Huelskamp, head of operations for Orora Packaging Solutions’ plants in Southern California, said the cardboard business makes up a much smaller part of the economy than it did in the 1990s.

“Industrial production in the U.S. has dropped, and the production that happens in the U.S. has also changed to things that don’t need corrugated,” Huelskamp said. “I mean, one of the number one industries in this country is aircraft production -- billions of dollars of production. They don’t go in boxes.”

Huelskamp said online retail and shipping has helped stabilize the industry. High seasonal demand has workers putting in hours around the clock. Along the factory floor of Orora’s Gardena, California, location, enormous rolls of paper, weighing thousands of pounds, stood stacked, waiting to be converted into corrugated. Huelskamp said it’s a common mistake to refer to corrugated as “cardboard,” which comprises a single sheet of material. Corrugated has three layers of paper, including the wavy middle layer that adds strength to the material.

The paper rolls unspool in a brown blur into machines that steam, shape and glue together the three layers into a final sheet. The company’s four Southern California locations will make enough corrugated in a year to cover 179 square miles.

It’s a large amount  but not a major increase. Huelskamp said corrugated production in North America has only risen by a percent or two in recent years.

“We’re making about the same amount of corrugated we did 20 years ago, even though this demand is going up,” Huelskamp said. “That’s because people are using it so much more effectively today.”

Companies are scaling back how much corrugated they use. And they’re using boxes more tailored to online shipping. They’re getting smarter about the packages they send -- no more largely empty boxes that cost a lot to ship. The corrugated itself is also constantly improving.  

“The fiber has gotten thinner, the paper has gotten stronger,” Huelskamp said. “Everything has gotten better to allow us to be able to ship more weight in a lighter weight package.”

The seasonal increase in demand can be clearly seen at the Gardena location of MakeshopNcompany. The service sells American retail goods to customers mostly in Korea.

All day long, workers open shipped boxes and repackage prized goods into new boxes. This time of year, they ship as many as five thousand boxes a day out of here. Normally, it’s around a thousand.  It’s a globalized Christmas delivery, made possible by brown boxes.

“I mean, the world moves in cardboard, right?” said Eric Cho, director of business development for MakeshopNcompany. “Whether it’s being manufactured, coming from China to the United States or whether it’s leaving the United States, going back to China or somewhere else in the world.”

Refuse haulers may notice the increase in corrugated cardboard more than anyone else. Robert Ehni has been hauling trash and recycling for the City of Los Angeles for close to 20 years. He drives one of those trucks with the arm that picks up household garbage bins and shakes their contents into the hopper. His attention to cardboard may stem from the difficulty it poses for his job.

“As far as collection goes, cardboard is the enemy as far as recycle, because it’s hard to pack,” Ehni said.

The material takes up a lot of space, especially when people don’t break down their boxes. He said around this time of year, he expects to add an extra hour or two to his shift.

“For sure, with everybody buying things now more on the internet, having them shipped to their house, it can be no question there’s way more cardboard in recycle than there ever has been before,” he said.

Related These days, the holiday magic happens in warehouses Christmas has always been about consumption