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Why is it so hard to get rid of cardboard boxes?

Online shopping means we’re getting more packages than ever. You’d think someone would have found an elegant disposal solution.

UIG via Getty Images

I make about half of my purchases online — a statistically average behavior for a 26-year-old, but one that tends to generate boxes. Managing this influx of boxes is annoying. Intact, they clutter my small New York apartment; collapsed, they don’t fit inside my kitchen trash can.

The way I usually deal with this mess is by flattening the boxes, turning them on end, and shoving them between my trashcan and the wall. I call this method the “bookend method.” It is not particularly effective. Often when I step on the pedal to the trash can, the swinging force of the opening lid knocks the upright cardboard out of place. Or sometimes the flattened cardboard itself prevents the lid from being swung open.

In any case, the problem gets worse as the bushel of boxes gets larger and larger. It’s a very small problem, but it annoys me every day, like a stair that is slightly taller than the rest.

I’m not the only one with too much cardboard. In 2017, Amazon alone shipped more than 5 billion items to homes worldwide, largely in paper envelopes and cardboard boxes. Blue Apron sends 8 million cardboard boxes every month.

My issue is not really with cardboard consumption — which has actually decreased slightly since the dawn of e-commerce. Sure, it would be great if we reduced our use of boxes, but I just want to know where I should put them in the meantime.

Back in the time before online shopping, products were sent in boxes to stores and taken back home in their nude, box-less state. Cardboard disposal was a commercial endeavor, zoned to retail and industrial spaces with specialized dumpsters and cardboard compactors. (Still true in our remaining brick-and-mortar stores.)

But now, much of this refuse ends up in our homes, creating a personal waste management problem for those of us without garages or even closets. As someone who tries to keep a clean house, the boxes are a literal stumbling block.

I’ve tried to start taking the boxes out more often, but this isn’t really a tenable solution. Flattened boxes are cumbersome, and carrying more than one demands two hands. I find the whole process so needlessly involved, but even if it weren’t, that wouldn’t solve my problem: The trash room in my building is an outdoor alley, with five large trash cans, each measuring 22-inches in diameter. The flattened boxes do not fit inside these cans, so my super has requested that we use the bookend method to wedge our box trash up against the wall. With 20+ tenants, this isn’t enough space. Sometimes I hear him yelling out the window as he tries to arrange our incorrigible trash.

For a while I wondered if maybe I was dumb and had somehow neglected a basic life skill that would help make box disposal run more smoothly. I asked a few friends how they manage this trash, and most said, much like me, they just deal. My one friend Sally ties her boxes with twine, because that’s what her landlord told her to do.

“But where do you put them when you bring them to the trash room?”

“The twine doesn’t solve that part of the problem.”

The online advice about cardboard disposal all seems to cater to people who just moved. If you unpack your house and you have a ton of boxes, you can sign up for U-Haul’s Box Exchange program, which pairs you with someone else who needs boxes. This is cool, but it’s probably excessive for someone with three to ten boxes each week. The same goes for listing boxes on Craigslist, or giving them away to a neighbor on NextDoor.

My problem could be solved by a compactor or a dumpster, but these things are expensive and take up too much space. I emailed all the major trash can suppliers, asking if any had plans to sell a product that dealt with the influx of cardboard at home. The only one that replied was SimpleHuman, with the suggestion that I consider a large commercial can. These cans are stunning, but unfortunately the widest has an aperture of only 20.7 inches. This might accommodate your average flattened shoebox, but probably not a standard Amazon box.

Really, the issue I’m dealing with is that trash is no longer the shape of the trash can. The product I think I wish they’d invent looks more like a five-foot magazine file that holds the upright cardboard in place. To think even further outside the bin, I got in touch with Matt Dingee, a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Packaging and the co-founder of OnPoint2020, a leading packaging consulting firm. Matt understood my problem very clearly:

“The corrugate industry has grown significantly in the last couple of years, largely due to eCommerce, and all the delivery corrugate.” (Corrugate is what the packaging elite call the kind of cardboard with a fluted, zig-zag edge.) “It is transferring some [of the boxes] from traditional stores to consumers who get things delivered directly to their houses.”

Instead of trying to build a better trash can, Matt pointed me toward some new packaging concepts, including a reusable shipping envelope that gets returned to retailers, much like the glass Coke bottles of the past. One such envelope, from LimeLoop, repurposes waterproof vinyl from billboards, reducing waste from two different industries. Solutions like these depend on retailers themselves, who aren’t always willing to take the risk of asking customers to adapt to new behavior.

“I think the consumer is ready,” Matt said. “The company that can figure out an elegant way to do it — one that’s not too obstructive, but also it gives the consumer a part in solving the problem — is gonna be way ahead of everybody else.”

Until then, it seems that our likeliest solution is to keep wedging stacks of flattened boxes into the slots between our trash cans and our walls. The alternative, of course, is to give up online shopping — an innovative change that could stem the flow of boxes, stop the abuse of warehouse workers, reduce the carbon footprint of shipping transportation, and slay the unchecked corporate beast that continues to take all our money and our data.

I wish I could believe that we have that self-restraint.

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