box campaign ( Courtesy Fibre Box Association )

With annual microbial testing showing corrugated cartons are consistently safe, paper packaging advocate Fibre Box Association touts paper-based packaging as both safe and sustainable for fresh produce.

The group last year issued its fourth annual assessment of microbial load on corrugated cartons, and again shows no concern relative to pathogens on new packaging.

Sampling and laboratory analysis, according to a news release, were performed by Primus Laboratories on a total of 48 containers. The release said a total of 96 samples were tested for the potential presence of E. coli and Salmonella spp.

“All (100%) of the corrugated containers sampled in this 2018 annual survey showed that the levels of Enterobacteriaceae and thermotolerant coliforms were well within acceptable limits,” the report said. “In fact, no organisms at all were detected on 40 of the 48 tested containers.”

Rachel Kenyon, senior vice president for the Fibre Box Association, Itasca, Ill., said the testing brings suppliers certainty their product is safe.

“It just gives us the comfort level to be able to say we’ve done this and we do it at different customer locations, different boxes,” she said. 

“I think there (is) a general feeling that (corrugated packaging) doesn’t harbor contaminants, but as an industry, we wanted to be able to back up that with research,” she said.

With single-use plastics under fire by some regulators and consumer groups, Kenyon said opportunities for paper packaging are increasing while some uses of plastic clamshells are decreasing.

“Those are exciting opportunities for us and I think that will continue to increase, particularly as people move to plant-based diets,” she said. “Why put a plant-based product in anything but a plant?” she said, noting that a cardboard carton “comes from a tree.”

Usage rising 

Industry usage statistics point to gradual but consistent increases in corrugated carton use since the recession of the late 2000s-early 2010s, Kenyon said, typically averaging 1% to 2.5% gains per year.

Food and beverage products account for about 46% of all corrugated carton use, she said.

U.S. corrugated packaging use in 1999 totaled 405 billion square feet, but that total dropped to just 345 billion square feet in 2009 when recession was in full force. In 2018, statistics show that U.S. corrugated carton output had climbed to about 393 billion square feet.

While e-commerce use of fiber-based packaging is increasing, she said some of that volume is offset by declines in other distribution channels.

“E-commerce is more about substitution, so instead of a box going to a retailer, it’s going to your doorstep,” she said. “It is just going to a different distribution channel that’s getting it to you.”

Kenyon said the recovery rate for corrugated cartons was 96% in 2018.

“One of the concerns that we have from e-commerce is that we’ve had this wonderful relationship with retailers over time. When they receive corrugated boxes, they will (put) those boxes out on the floor, they will build a beautiful display and they will take that box from the back room, they will put it in a bailer and we will get that fiber back,” she said.

The average recycled content in corrugated cartons is about 50%, so box suppliers need corrugated cartons to be returned and remade into new cartons.

“One concern with e-commerce is that as packaging transitions from that retail store to someone’s door step, it becomes an individual choice to (recycle),” she said.

“Our concern is that people won’t recycle, that they will choose not to,” said.

“So we’re looking at one of our big initiatives this year is how can we better support the recycling industry; how can we get the word out?” 

Consumers might be bothered that they have more boxes on their door step, but they can feel good about recycling the boxes. 

“We want that fiber back — we need it,” she said. 

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