Corrugated Industry Stands Solid on New Package Cleanliness Research, Sustainability

By Dennis Colley

The first corrugated box was produced in the U.S. in 1895. Today, it’s estimated that 90% of all products manufactured in the U.S. ship in a corrugated box sometime during their life cycle from manufacturer to end user. Yet, we tend to take the corrugated box for granted. It’s cost-effective, protective, easily shipped, has retail appeal, and is sustainable and clean.

In the produce industry, it’s this last attribute that has gained recent attention. For growers, shippers, and packers, food safety is essential and always top of mind, but what about the cleanliness of containers used to ship produce? The corrugated industry works hard to deliver containers that are free of foreign contamination to their customers. But there’s another component of clean not seen by the naked eye—bacteria. Is bacteria present on the inside surfaces of boxes?

To answer these questions, the corrugated industry recently commissioned third-party testing and analysis conducted by the University of California-Davis and toxicology experts Haley & Aldrich that confirmed 100% of tested corrugated containers met all acceptable sanitation levels.

Experts examined 720 swab samples taken from containers produced by six different corrugated manufacturers at grower-shipper locations in three different U.S. regions—the Northwest, California, and Florida.

Samples were tested using the cleanliness threshold of 1,000 colony forming units as defined by Keith Warriner from the University of Guelph, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, and the New South Wales Food Authority. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration does not have guidelines for packaging bacterial levels.

One hundred percent of the evaluated samples were below 1,000 CFU per swab, confirming that corrugated containers provided for food packaging meet acceptable sanitation criteria at the point of use.

Typical corrugated manufacturing practices are responsible for the low levels of bacteria. Corrugated containers are engineered for single-use specifically for the product they contain. They’re designed to cushion and protect products and at the same time optimize fiber usage and reduce weight and air shipped, leading to fewer loads. After use, there’s nothing to wash. The corrugated box is returned to the paper mill where the recycling process greatly reduces bacterial loading.

Nearly 90% of corrugated shipping containers produced in the U.S. are recovered for recycling through strong commercial and residential collection programs. Most retailers have backroom balers used to bale corrugated that is then sold to generate revenue and improve store profitability.

This continuous cycle of using boxes, recycling them, and then creating new boxes not only translates into package cleanliness, it also contributes to the sustainability of the corrugated industry.

The corrugated industry has a long history of responsible environmental stewardship. Like produce growers and shippers, paper and paper-based packaging manufacturers recognize a responsibility to the land that supports their crop. Corrugated containers are made from a renewable resource—trees. Today, one-third of the U.S. land mass, 751 million acres, is forestland with 504 million acres classified as timberlands. That’s more trees today than when the first U.S. Earth Day was celebrated more than 40 years ago. In addition, 3.2 million seedlings are planted each day—1.2 billion a year. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and offset 10% of our nation’s emissions.

Further, the corrugated industry remains committed to improving its overall footprint. The first ever industry-wide life cycle assessment was published in 2010 with an update last summer showing reductions in 10 impact categories, including a 32% reduction in global warming potential.

All of this, along with a lot of innovation along the way, contribute to making corrugated boxes unsung heroes.

In partnership with produce growers, shippers, and packers, corrugated manufacturers will continue to seek optimal performance in the delivery of produce from field to table. This week’s corrugated study results are the latest example of the corrugated industry’s commitment to deliver packaging that meets acceptable sanitation levels to contain, protect, and transport produce.

More information about the corrugated industry is available online. 

About the Author

Dennis Colley is executive director of the Corrugated Packaging Alliance (CPA), a corrugated industry initiative sponsored by the American Forest & Paper Association, AICC–The Independent Packaging Association, the Fibre Box Association, and the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry. Its mission is to foster growth and profitability of corrugated in applications where it can be demonstrated, based on credible and persuasive evidence, that corrugated should be the packaging material of choice.