In 1840, the French village of Valréas discovered its destiny. That’s when this little town, which self-identifies as the totally brag-worthy “cardboard capital of the world,” got into the business of moth transport. What they discovered is that cardboard boxes provided the best packaging option for shipping the silk-producing Bombyx mori moth and it became their number one business.
In fact, the people of Valréas are so serious about their boxes that the town is also home to the Musée du Cartonnage et l’Imprimerie (the Cardboard and Printing Museum), which I’m sure you’ll rush right out to see as soon as travel becomes a thing people do again. I probably won’t go, but I wouldn’t mind if you pick me up a brochure.
Though it may be the proudest of the humble cardboard box, Valréas is not its originator. Not surprisingly, the first cardboard comes from China which can also lay claim to the earliest examples of paper and it was about 1817 when the English began using kind of flimsy cardboard boxes commercially.
The corrugated cardboard box that we all know and love today appeared on the scene at the beginning of the 20th century, not long after New York paper bag producer Robert Gair accidentally cut thousands of paper bags in a machine that should have been folding them. The accident occurred in 1879 and led Gair to realize that with some adjustments his machine it could be made to produce foldable boxes.
By 1900, wooden shipping boxes had been largely replaced by the sturdy, lightweight, recyclable alternative that today carries backordered toilet paper directly to the front doors of homes all over the world, protects breakable cargo from damage caused by the rough and tumble world of shipping a thing from here to there, and needlessly stacks up in my basement for years and years and years.
My family has more or less settled in the St. Louis area where we’ve been for about eight years now, but in the earlier years of my marriage we moved a lot. That required a lot of boxes and it caused us to develop a habit. Every time we’ve purchased something big, my husband has saved the box.
It’s not entirely fair for me to throw him under the bus here, because I am a willing accomplice in the crazy. And it wasn’t crazy when we were moving every few years. But now that we’re settled, and have a basement large enough to accommodate the original boxes of every piece of electronic equipment we’ve ever owned (some of which have been replaced), I admit I had begun to question whether we should consider downsizing the box collection.
And then I learned something really interesting. Yes, something interesting about cardboard boxes. I’m getting to it, I promise.
The first thing I learned (on Facebook of all places because that’s where there are so many true things to learn) is that I have a friend in the cardboard box business. The second (and this really is the interesting part) is that we are currently experiencing a worldwide cardboard box shortage. True story. As if toilet paper and coins weren’t bad enough.
And though I (and probably you) haven’t spent much time thinking about the cardboard box (except when I’m unnecessarily tucking them onto a shelf in the basement), it’s kind of a big deal. That’s according to both the BBC and my friend who sells boxes. For some reason the American media has been somewhat silent on the whole matter. Perhaps they just haven’t seen the enormous entertainment value of cardboard boxes.
Here’s the problem. The pandemic has led to a rapid increase in online shopping and home delivery. That means products that used to arrive in large boxes at stores that broke them down and baled them into neat, clean stacks to be quickly recycled, now arrive on our porches in larger numbers of small boxes which uses more material. There they sit in all kinds of weather, to occasionally fall under attack by dogs and eventually be torn open without much care. Then they’re either piled up in the basement or tossed into the garage where they are contaminated with grease and who knows what else before maybe being recycled a month or so from now.
In an industry where recycled material typically makes up at least 75% of every new product, that’s turning out to be a serious material shortfall. And while big online retailers are managing okay by buying out the cardboard box market, smaller companies are really struggling to package their goods. And I don’t even want to know what it’s doing to the moth shipping business. To quote my friend, it’s “a brutal time to be a box salesman.”
It turns out, boxes are the hot ticket item right now, and while I totally missed out on the hoarding of hand sanitizer, masks, canned food, bread, and toilet paper, I am way ahead of the curve on this box hoarding thing.
So, fear not. If you’re waiting for that backordered thing (or boxful of moths) that can’t get to you because there aren’t any shipping boxes, I got you. I’ll clean out the basement and garage and head to the cardboard recycling drop-off today. I mean, I’ll keep a few of the really important ones. And I won’t get to it today. It’s really cold and awfully snowy outside. But I’ll do it soon. Probably.