Where did that box come from?

Apr 22, 2016
Turner_Abigail-WebBy Abigail Turner
Manager, Government Affairs

As a member of the millennial generation, I am a whole-hearted participant in the online-purchasing culture. I love being able to price-compare and look at reviews before I make my purchases from stores all over the world. In the last few months we had our cleaning products, dry grocery goods, clothing, toiletries, wedding decor, and even some birthday candles delivered to our front porch without my standing in a line at the store or negotiating carrying heavy groceries home on public transportation.

As a side effect of the online-shopping habits in my home, we have packaging to recycle most weeks. Normally I’d feel a bit guilty about all this material going through my home but thanks to my job I know the paper and packaging industry has achieved a consistently high recovery rate. In 2014, 65.4 percent of all paper consumed in the United States was recovered for recycling, and the recovery rate has met or exceeded 63 percent for the past six years. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more paper (by weight) is recovered for recycling from municipal solid waste streams than glass, plastic, steel and aluminum combined. Not bad.

Despite these great numbers, there is legislation this year in states like Rhode Island and Connecticut where they want to assign fees to the producers of packaging through extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs.

Packages and boxes like the ones that are delivered to my front door start out as fiber, either recycled from recovered paper at facilities around the country or the pulp is made from trees sustainably harvested in the United States. The box might be assembled in New Jersey after being shipped from the mill in Pennsylvania where the fiber was turned into pulp and then items are packed into it in Vermont. That box might then be shipped from a warehouse in Connecticut to its final destination, me, in Maryland. Then, after I’ve received my purchase, I can recycle the box and it will likely end up at a facility where it can be used to make a new box and the cycle begins again.

After a journey like the one the box just took, it is hard to imagine logistically how a manufacturer or brand owner could be required to pay fees on the products it introduces into a global commerce stream on a state by state basis.

As we observe Earth Day, we can think of paper as a model for other industries in terms of performance and attitude. The paper and paper-based packaging industry has set and met goals established on a voluntary basis, and publicly reported on performance. EPR, though surely well intentioned, falls short of the mark. Governments can help support this market success by avoiding mandates and arbitrary rules that disrupt the current system.