PetroWax-Free Cardboard Box Initiative

As businesses move down the zero waste path, audits of remaining “trash” often reveal packaging is the main component of items destined for the landfill. For the food industry, petrowax-coated cardboard boxes for produce (fruits and vegetables) and protein (meats, seafood & poultry) are a significant contributor to a foodservice operator | grocery store’s waste hauling charges. 

During recycling, OCC (old corrugated cardboard) is shredded, mixed in a water slurry, and processed into new paper through the recovery of recycled fibers. In the water-fiber mixture the petrowax agglomerates, clogging screens and other processing equipment; the result is decreased fiber recovery and increased costs due to necessary equipment cleaning. Petrowax-coated boxes are a contaminant in OCC recycling.

With a strong commodity market, operators who bale OCC on-site often create a recycling-profit center with OCC revenue more than offsetting the additional labor. On the other hand, petrowax-coated cardboard goes in the trash dumpster costing the operator waste hauling charges.

Global Green’s Coalition for Resource Recovery is currently surveying the corrugated cardboard industry to update the cost-savings and benefits related to the use of wax alternatives. Early survey calculations demonstrate over 1 million tons of petrowax-coated cardboard are currently going to U.S. landfills, costing about $55 million annually in hauling and landfill tipping fees. The equivalent recycling value is around $70 million for a net industry benefit of an estimated $125 million annually.

The industry recently identified an important new benefit attributable to the utilization of wax alternatives.  When natural, sustainable substitutes are used in place of petrowax, the used boxes can be recycled along with non-waxed boxes, reducing the volumes of cellulosic fiber disposed of in landfills.  Cellulose biodegrades into methane, a greenhouse gas approximately twenty-two to twenty-seven times as harmful as CO2 .   

Redirected box fibers are typically recycled five to six times leading to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reductions of about 5 tons of CO2e for every ton of OCC diverted from the landfill to recycling.  When sustainable wax alternatives are fully utilized, the current volume of 1 million tons of diverted OCC will generate a reduction in GHG’s of 5 million CO2e annually.

Ei Industry Expert Chemol Company developed coating alternatives derived from natural, sustainable raw materials (vegetable oils and animal fats.) The alternative coating provides similar water resistance and wet strength characteristics to petrowax coatings.

Petrowax alternative coatings are cost-neutral to box manufacturers. The same equipment with little or no modification is used for the coating process.

OCC recyclability is certified by the Fibre Box Association (FBA) who requires each box manufacturer pass a rigorous fiber recovery protocol. Boxes with Chemol’s petrowax-free alternative coating pass the FBA OCC recyclability certification.

In 2012 Ei began work on petrowax-free boxes. The May 2012 RiA Magazine article, Waxed Cardboard = Landfill Destiny = $$ Lost, is the second most popular blog article with over 8,000 views. The article features the National Restaurant Association Show education session Challenging the Value-Chain to Transform Transport Packaging: Eco-Friendly, Wallet-Friendly Solutions orchestrated by Ei Founding Chair Scott Seydel.

As a first step to understanding on-farm packaging practices, the Ei Team visited two South Georgia farms with on-site slaughter houses and packing operations. RiA Magazine article, Consumer Demand: A Powerful Voice to Affect Change, gives an overview of the farm tours and Ei’s foray into Product Stewardship. As the title indicates, Ei intends to work with Industry Pioneers to invoke the powerful consumer demand to affect shifts in box-coating practices.

In August 2013 a portion of the Indy Zero Waste Tours was dedicated to petrowax-free box education. Industry Pioneer Ted’s Montana Grill (TMG) joined the tour of Piazza Produce followed by the education session. The Ei FB album, 08-13 Indy Zero Waste Tours, gives a pictorial recap of the Indy tours.

The Ei PetroWax-Free Box Initiative was announced at the 2015 Annual Partner Meeting. The IMPACT Magazine article, Ei 2015: Year of ACTION, recaps the meeting; PPT presentations are available on the Annual Ei Partner Meetings page. Chemol President Fred Wellons took the initiative leadership role.

First action steps are forming the Industry Pioneer Team, including foodservice operators, grocery stores, and produce | protein distributors. Next Ei will recruit box manufacturers to serve as the initiative Industry Experts.

Industry Pioneers hold the key for transport packaging evolution. By using their power of consumer demand and working on common goals with their supply chain, Industry Pioneers will craft scenarios where businesses and the environment benefit. Petrowax-free boxes are an easy win for shifting transport packaging from trash to valuable material.