The Box Footprint

Photo illustration by Todd St. John

We have barely scratched the surface on the ecological or the social implications of online retailing’s growing share of the economy. Until now, no attention to the boxes, specifically, so today we are happy to find excellent reporting focused on that. Cardboard is an increasing part of the lives of most of us living in digital economies, so thanks to Matthew Shaer for letting us know more about it:

Where Does All the Cardboard Come From? I Had to Know.

Entire forests and enormous factories running 24/7 can barely keep up with demand. This is how the cardboard economy works.

Stacks of unprinted, uncut cardboard at the International Paper factory in Lithonia, Ga. Christopher Payne for The New York Times

Before it was the cardboard on your doorstep, it was coarse brown paper, and before it was paper, it was a river of hot pulp, and before it was a river, it was a tree. Probably a Pinus taeda, or loblolly pine, a slender conifer native to the Southeastern United States. “The wonderful thing about the loblolly,” a forester named Alex Singleton told me this spring, peering out over the fringes of a tree farm in West Georgia, “is that it grows fast and grows pretty much anywhere, including swamps” — hence the non-Latin name for the tree, which comes from an antiquated term for mud pit. “See those oaks over there?” Singleton went on. “Oaks are hardwood, with short fibers. Fine for paper. Book pages. But not fine for packaging, because for packaging, you need the long fibers. A pine will give you that. An oak won’t.”

A timber farm in Rome, Ga., that supplies I.P. Christopher Payne for The New York Times

Singleton, who is 54, with a shaved head and graying beard, has spent the past few years as a fiber-supply manager for International Paper, or I.P., a packaging concern headquartered in Memphis. (Paper people tend to scoff at the word “cardboard,” which they consider inaccurate and a little gauche.) Among the big conglomerates that dominate the North American sector of the flourishing cardboard industry, I.P. is the biggest: The company is responsible for a third of the boxes created in the United States. Singleton’s job, as his title indicates, is to source enough loblollies to help keep I.P.’s production lines humming.

“You’re sort of always in a race,” he said. “You learn to get creative.” The foresters on Singleton’s crew spend much of their time zipping around the Southeast by pickup, using a proprietary smartphone app to monitor tracts of harvestable woodland. Many of the tracts are maintained by commercial tree-farming concerns well known to I.P.; others are on land belonging to local or state governments. “Then you’ve got the families who might harvest once in their lifetime,” Singleton said, “in order to buy a car or send their kids to college.” After a deal is struck with the landowner — the fee is based on total tonnage, and the location and quality of the timber — a logging team will remove the trees and transport them by truck to a paper mill.

If the trees in question come from western Georgia or eastern Alabama, their destination is likely to be the International Paper facility in the Georgia city Rome, where Singleton lives. The Rome plant is the terminus for most of the softwood timber logged within a 100-mile radius; when I visited this spring, a line of mud-splattered trucks was assembled on the entry road, flatbeds heavy with pine. “We’ve got about 8,000 tons of trees coming in here every day, and we’re open 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Kevin Walls, a manufacturing executive.

“No vacations for you,” Singleton suggested from the back seat of the truck.

“Well, I can take them,” Walls said. “But I’m always on call.”

We drove around the side of the facility to the woodyard, where a crane was removing timber from a log truck and feeding it into the bladed mouth of a cylindrical machine known as a debarking drum. Even from a distance of approximately 200 yards, the drum made a racket. It churned and chewed and spit the denuded trees from its rear end. Another masticating machine, this one a steel chipper. In went the debarked trees, out came a spray of loblolly pine. It was extremely satisfying. I could have sat there all day.

In the mill proper, the air had a tropical clamminess; the dominant olfactory note was of broken-down cardboard left out in the rain. In a series of nearby vats, the chips from the woodyard were entering what’s known as the kraft process (after the German word for “strength”), in which a chemical cocktail is used to break the chipped timber down to a gloppy sludge. “We’re after the cellulose fibers,” Walls shouted through a headset. “The long, strong fibers.”…

Read the whole article here.

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