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How Many Boxes Did You Say?

By AICC Staff

March 25, 2019

Independent corrugated converters regularly read and analyze the box shipment statistics published by the Fibre Box Association (FBA). But, have you ever stopped to think through what they mean in terms that an average individual can relate to? We will do that here.

In 2017, the FBA reported that U.S. box shipments totaled 386 billion square feet. Three hundred eighty-six billion of anything is a hard number to wrap your mind around. But last year there were 324 million men, women, and children in the United States, organized into 126.2 million households. A little calculator work translates those annual U.S. box shipments into 383 one-cubic-foot boxes per year per household. That is a quantity that can be visualized, as are the 149 boxes used per person annually in the U.S. This accounts for all the corrugated boxes needed to get raw and semifinished materials to each step in the manufacturing processes. It also accounts for all the boxes then needed to protect those products through the supply chain from the final manufacturer to each household using those products or the services that those products support.

The U.S.—as are most advanced economies—is an intensive user of corrugated packaging. Not only is corrugated the economic and environmental choice for the broadest spectrum of packaging requirements, but the extensive geography and highly developed infrastructure of the U.S. also increases the need for boxes to protect goods on their journey through the supply chain.

The International Corrugated Case Association provides historical estimates of corrugated production for many countries and all regions of the world. Combining those data with population estimates published by the United Nations can help us better understand box usage around the world.

There are wide variations among regions and countries of the world when it comes to the amount of corrugated packaging used. Underlying these dissimilarities are differences in the development of national infrastructure, type, and maturity of economic development, and many other cultural and social differences.

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The charts above illustrate the widely varying rates at which boxes were used in 2004 and 2017, and the differences in packaging intensity growth between those years. Worldwide, an average of 44 boxes per person were used in 2017 to meet individual needs—less than one-third that of the U.S. That gap suggests there will be ample opportunity for corrugated demand to grow more rapidly than population over the coming decades, as more countries narrow the economic gap between developing and developed nations. Indeed, over the 13 years between 2004 and 2017, world per capita box consumption grew at 2.4 percent per year—double the 1.2 percent per year annual average population growth rate.

At the bottom of the list are the mostly undeveloped countries that make up the African continent. Let’s stick with our reference-size one-cubic-foot box. Only three boxes were used per person on average there in 2017. Three boxes per person doesn’t seem like a lot until you multiply it by the 1.256 billion people living in Africa in 2017. Not only was African unit consumption low, it declined fractionally by 0.3 percent per year since 2004, as rapid population growth outstripped rising demand growth for boxes generated by limited infrastructure growth.

Latin American and Caribbean countries saw usage of 34 boxes per person in 2017—an amount that had grown by 1.9 percent per year since 2004. The different economic profiles of the two largest countries in the region—Brazil and Mexico—resulted in per capita box production growing by 3.5 percent per year in Brazil and by only 0.2 percent per year in Mexico.

However, the real engines of global growth during the past two decades were the developing economies of Asia. China went from using 22 boxes per capita in 2004 to 72 in 2017, a stunning 9.4 percent average annual rate of growth since 2004. A comparable situation is developing in India, as box demand has grown by 6.5 percent per year between 2004 and 2017. Even though only 10 boxes were produced in 2017 per person in India, that translated into more than 13 billion boxes for the entire country.

The results for Europe combine the effects of the more packaging-intensive developed Western European nations and the more rapidly growing unit corrugated consumption in the developing nations of Eastern Europe. Combined European packaging intensity rose by 1.7 percent per year to reach 99 boxes per person in 2017.

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The chart above shows the number of reference boxes produced per person per year in key developing and developed countries around the world.

Germany (at 171 boxes per person in 2017) was the only country with higher packaging intensity than the U.S., partly the result of a developed economy that is skewed toward manufacturing and export.

As might be expected of the most packaging-intensive economies, efforts to increase packaging efficiency have become increasingly important. The combined unit packaging consumption of North America, for example, declined by 0.9 percent per year over the 13 years ending in 2017. The United Kingdom also saw a slight decline in per capita corrugated consumption. Other developed nations, including Japan, France, Italy, and Spain, all showed only fractional gains in unit corrugated consumption between 2004 and 2017.


PortraitDick Storat is president of Richard Storat & Associates. He can be reached at 610-282-6033 or storatre@aol.com.