In Praise of the Oh-So-Dependable Cardboard Box

From St. Louis Post-Dispatch

When you think of the greatest inventions of all time, you think of the wheel, movable type, electricity. When you think of the greatest inventions and products of the 20th century, you think of plastic, the transistor, the mass-produced car, the passenger plane, the radio, the television and the computer.

But don’t forget the cardboard box. It’s the anti-wheel, the non-wheel, the un-wheel. Form follows function: the wheel is round; the box is square. The wheel is designed to go. The box is designed to stay right there, thank you very much.

Going is often superior to staying, but the power of the box is its stability. More importantly in today’s world, the shape of the box provides stackability combined with protection. It’s easy to pack a lot of peaches into the back of a truck. If you want to arrive with peaches rather than peach nectar, boxes are indispensable.

cardboardAccording to the Fibre Box Association, America produced 395 billion square feet of corrugated cardboard in 1998. Corrugated cardboard is the stuff used in virtually every box that’s used for shipping.

It’s basically everything other than the thinner cardboard used to hold cereal or tubes of toothpaste.

Almost 400 billion square feet is a lot of cardboard. How many boxes is that? If you use a standard size of a square box — a foot and a half long, wide and deep — that’s the equivalent of more than 40 billion boxes. That’s a lot of boxes.

Over 70 percent of the corrugated cardboard produced every year gets recycled. That’s more than 28 million boxes. The other 12 million boxes are in my basement to make sure that my wife and I always have the right size on hand. Actually, you probably have a few in your basement as well.

They’re great for storage and perfect for when you have to move.

We marvel at e-commerce and the technological achievements of our age. But as of now, you can’t download a bicycle or a shirt over the Internet. Ultimately , someone has to load the goods on a truck and bring them to your door. And when they do, they arrive in a box.

Without the box, there’s probably no Amazon.com, no Lands’ End, no L.L. Bean.

Put the cardboard box up against its parent, the wood crate, and count the advantages. The box is cheaper to produce, lighter to ship and you can stack it flat before and after it’s been used. Imagine the cost of using wood crates to ship everything. Imagine the challenge of breaking down those wood crates and disposing of them.

Or imagine the cost of shipping a bicycle fully assembled in a way that would allow it to arrive unharmed. Think what that would add to the cost of everything in our lives. If a truck or a train or a plane can’t carry bicycles in boxes, then the bicycles have to be strapped down in such a way that they can’t be damaged. That means fewer bikes can be shipped per trip and that means that the delivery cost of each bicycle goes way up.

The cardboard box lowers shipping costs dramatically.

So what? Is it such a big deal to have cheap shipping? It is a very big deal.

Cheaper shipping means lower prices and that means we can have a little more of everything. Because cardboard boxes lower the cost of shipping, food and wine get to the grocery at lower cost. Competition among grocery stores forces them to pass some of those cost savings on to us. So wine and food are less expensive than they would otherwise be. That means you can have more candlelight dinners with your spouse. That means extra potatoes for the hungry kids at your table or more money leftoverafter potatoes to buy them music lessons.

Because cardboard boxes lower the cost of shipping, insulin gets delivered to the hospital safely and cheaply and medical devices are less expensive.

Because cardboard boxes lower the cost of shipping, Amazon.com only loses its shirt and not its whole outfit when it ships me books at 20 to 30 percent off. Cheaper books mean more reading, which means a more interesting life.

So when you’re breaking down all those annoying boxes left over from the holidays, be grateful for the good they do as well.

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