Cardboard boxes used to be free, so what happened?

By Jenny Sims
BBC News Magazine

Image caption,
Cardboard boxes are a popular choice of storage when moving house

The cardboard box is an essential item for moving house. Supermarkets give them away, so why are people paying for them?

We've all been there. Surrounded by clutter, left with nothing to house the mess. Enter the cardboard box.

This sturdy, reliable object has been with us for more than 100 years. And as many people undertake a spring clean, these boxes will no doubt come in handy.

Acquiring cardboard boxes should be a no-brainer. Get them free from the local supermarket.

But more and more people are instead buying them from manufacturers, who are experiencing a boom.

WE Roberts, a packaging supplier based in Kent, reports a 10-fold increase in online sales over the last two years. Complete Packing Solutions, another supplier, suggests their sales to the public have increased by approximately 500-600% over the same period.

So why are people handing over their cash? Have the supermarkets become stingy? Or have UK householders become lazier, preferring to order boxes online than leave the comfort of their homes?

Type "cardboard box" into Google and you will see hundreds of companies charging for boxes.

Packs of five extra large double-walled cardboard boxes are being sold for £20, that's £4 per box, the same boxes you can find lying sorry and neglected on the floor of supermarket storerooms. Other boxes range from £2 to £10, depending on the size and quality.

Packaging suppliers are usually focused on supplying to businesses, but things are changing.

"Since the evolution of eBay and Amazon, we have found that the revenue generated from business-to-consumer has increased year-on-year and probably 10-fold over the last two years," says Richard Puffette of WE Roberts.

So, people are buying their boxes. Does this mean you can no longer get them free?

Not necessarily. Home improvement guru Sarah Beeny is still using unwanted supermarket boxes from her local Sainsbury's.

"Accumulating new boxes isn't helpful when space is now so valuable," says Beeny. "Garages are now sitting rooms, attics are now bedrooms." People don't have the space to store boxes, so buying them new just to throw away is counterproductive.

Tesco still give away their boxes "if they're available and the customer requests it", says a spokesman for Tesco. Similarly, Waitrose and Sainsbury's still give away their boxes where customers ask for them.

"It used to be that you had to bang on the back door of the warehouse to ask for a box but it's easier now," says Beeny, who believes supermarkets have become more flexible to help people out.

"It's a shame its taken 50 years of wanton wastage for us to realise the importance of recycling."

But others think that recycling has actually made it harder to obtain a box from the supermarket.

Tristram Stuart, author of Waste, says: "Most supermarkets almost immediately crush and recycle their cardboard now so it's less available."

And Puffette believes that in supermarkets, cardboard packaging is being cut to reduce waste, so there are fewer boxes available.

"It was pretty easy to pop down the supermarket and collect a few boxes in years gone by - it's not so easy these days with recycling legislation placed on the supply chain," says Puffette.

Whatever difficulties there are in getting a box from a supermarket, is it also the case that people have become a bit lazy?

Consumer behaviour research expert Philip Graves believes it's very much a case of picking the easier option. "People have become accustomed to taking any particular need and searching the internet for a solution.

"We would all probably realise that we could get boxes free from supermarkets, but that's not how we approach most of our consuming. Our unconscious mind takes control and sets us on a path that it has trodden successfully before."

He believes that if the internet delivers for other things, we will assume it can satisfy our need for cardboard boxes.

But it could all boil down to being shy. Perhaps the stereotypical reserved Briton just doesn't fancy causing a fuss at the supermarket, and would rather bring out the wallet.

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