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Cardboard's Immortality

Simple, sustainable, sturdy, a product made of wood pulp defies obsolescence.

By Sara Hart
March 2013
Illustration by Silja Gotz

Cardboard is the perfect utilitarian material—cheap, predictable, sturdy, dependable—which explains why it's as ubiquitous as concrete. More important, it's one of the few manufactured products that are inherently sustainable. Today, 95 percent of all products in the U.S. are shipped in prefabricated corrugated boxes. It is truly amazing that cardboard maintains its dominance after more than a century of accelerated material advances.

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The reusability and recyclability of cardboard are well known. Most cardboard boxes are made from about 35 percent recycled fiber, but recycled content can be as high as 100 percent. Nearly three-fourths of all corrugated boxes produced in the U.S. are recycled. Grocery stores alone recycle 6 million tons of old corrugated boxes each year. Old corrugated cardboard (known as OCC to distinguish it from chemically treated board) is an excellent source of fiber for recycling. It can be compressed and baled for easy transport to anywhere wood fiber is needed for making paper or packaging, particularly in developing nations without access to sustainable sources of wood fiber. (According to TriplePundit, a sustainable-business Web site, trees raised specifically for pulp production account for 42 percent of world pulp production; old-growth forests account for 9 percent; and forests of second, third, and more generations account for the rest.)

In the late 20th century, architects and designers began to experiment with cardboard as an apparently ironic artistic medium. Architect Frank Gehry exploited its potential for high-concept furniture design as far back as 1972. Gehry's Easy Edges series of tables and chairs were made of 60 layers of cardboard tightly fastened together by hidden screws and finished with fiberboard edging. The iconoclast illustrated that in the right hands, lowly materials can be transformed into functional art pieces. There's a big downside to this way of thinking. When a product manufactured from a cheap material becomes an expensive artifact, the cycle of recycling is halted. No one is going to recycle a $1,000 Gehry cardboard chair, though it's likely to be bequeathed.

As simple and base a product as cardboard is, it is still manufactured and does not quite grow on trees, so to speak, and can vary in quality. In other words, all cardboard is not created equal. There is evidence that cardboard has fallen into the hands of those for whom the medium carries a bigger message. A best-practice case study can be found in the work of Mary Dorrington Ward and Rod Fountain, who cofounded Cardboard Future in 2008 to push the boundaries of sustainable design and production with a strong emphasis on paper and board.

Based in Surrey, England, the duo has spent the last four years working with different cardboard, paper, and glue manufacturers to work out the ideal combination of kraft paper and recycled fibers, and types of glue, ink, and varnish, to produce the most strong, aesthetically appealing, and sustainable results. "We specify our own paper grades and weights for all the liners and fluting in the corrugated board we use to make our products," explains Fountain. "We have patents pending on some of the fabrication methods we use to provide the necessary engineered strength and rigidity. We're slowly increasing the amount of recycled paper we use to make our corrugated cardboard [currently about 70 percent]." The balance is virgin fiber acquired from certified sources in Europe. The glue they use is made of vegetable starch and water. "There is quite a lot of heat required in the board-making process, but this is derived from the factory's own biomass boiler and includes use of waste from the factory and other factories," says Fountain.

Cardboard Future (cardboardfuture.com) is the company's R&D arm; Flute Office (fluteoffice.com) is its commercial enterprise, which produces the Flute Pro line of office furniture and accessories. "We have been through dozens of prototypes, and many have not worked. But we think the Flute Pro desk is the answer," says Fountain. "We reinforce the board by cross-plying the flutes. 'Grade A double walled' is a slightly old-fashioned term for a clay-coated outer liner with three internal paper sheets and two layers of fluting. The varnish is water-based [rather than solvent-based], and the glue is our own version of PVA [polyvinyl acetate]. After much trial and error, we've worked out how to apply the glue to give it maximum bonding with minimum quantity. We are currently going through a chain-of-custody audit to verify our Cradle-to-Cradle aspiration."

The genius of Fountain and Ward's quest is their return policy. When customers are finished with one of the products, they call Flute Office, which picks it up and returns it to the factory. "It is very early days, so we don't have any meaningful data yet," says Fountain. "The idea is that when you want to change the way you work, or need a smaller or larger or differently shaped work platform, or need to accommodate more people in the same space, then we take back what you've got and give you what you need next"—not unlike trading in an old car for a new one. Internal fabricated parts are stripped out to be used again, and the outer boards are sent for recycling internally and remade into new corrugated board of virtually the same quality. Within a few days these boards are back on the screen printer to be printed, varnished, and die-cut again—ready for the assembly line once more.

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