SIC 2653

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing corrugated and solid fiber boxes and related products from paperboard or fiber stock. Important products of this industry include corrugated and solid fiberboard boxes, pads, partitions, display items, pallets, single face products, and corrugated sheets.

NAICS Code(s)

322211 (Corrugated and Solid Fiber Box Manufacturing)

Industry Snapshot

The United States is the world's largest producer of corrugated and solid fiber boxes, and as of the late 1990s, it accounted for more than a third of total world volume. Corrugated paperboard products are used to ship almost all of the non-durable goods manufactured in the United States—and a majority of the durable ones as well. They face relatively little competition from alternative shipping methods. The total value of corrugated paperboard and solid fiber box shipments in 2000 reached $33.1 billion.

The corrugated and solid fiber box industry employed 134,521 people in 2000, with an annual payroll of $4.91 billion. Of that total, 99,616 were production workers putting in 207 million hours for wages of $2.95 billion, which represents an average hourly wage of $14.10.

Corrugated paperboard products have long accounted for the majority of American paperboard container shipments, holding more than 60 percent of the total paperboard container market in the late 1990s. During that period, corrugated product shipments also held about 25 percent share of the overall domestic U.S. packaging market—which includes packaging made from wood, paper/paperboard, plastic, metal, glass, composites, and other materials.

The United States is a major consumer as well as a major producer of corrugated products. In the late 1990s, annual per capita U.S. consumption of corrugated products was the highest in the world—topping 80 kilograms (kg). Japan was the second leading consumer, at just under 70 kg. European nations make up the remaining per capita consumption leaders, with Germany at just under 50 kg, Italy at 45 kg, Spain at 40 kg and the United Kingdom at 30 kg.

Variations in End-Use Markets. The vast majority of corrugated products are used to package non-durable goods, such as food products. In the late 1990s, for example, 77.7 percent of corrugated products were used to package non-durable goods. The percentage of corrugated products directed toward non-durable goods tends to rise during recessions since the number of high-ticket durable goods shipped—such as stoves and refrigerators—decreases.

Shippers and packagers of food products, the largest market for corrugated products, are likely to be the highest growth market for the corrugated industry. Also, shippers were using more corrugated pallets to replace wooden ones because of concerns about costs and recycling.

One of the key trends in corrugated boxes is recycling; this affects both the material used to make the boxes and how they are disposed of after use. Corrugated boxes are easily recycled and are biodegradable, which tends to help them compete well against plastic products among "green" consumers. Most corrugated products are unbleached, which exempts them from the controversies surrounding bleaching processes in the paper industry. In the late 1990s, about 66 percent of corrugated products were recovered for recycling into new boxes or other paperboard products, which represents the second highest recovery level of any major consumable material (aluminum cans are first). Increased collection of corrugated boxes—including those coming from the homes of consumers—is expected to increase to 70 percent in the early 2000s.

Organization and Structure

The corrugated box market is about 80 percent integrated. This means that 80 percent of all containerboard (the linerboard facing and corrugated fluting that together make a corrugated box) is not sold on the open market. Instead, it is delivered from containerboard mills to corrugated box plants owned by or affiliated with the same organization. The remaining 20 percent are sold by containerboard producers to independent box plants.

The value of corrugated and solid fiber box shipments reflect both the economic activity of the products shipped in them and the prices paid for boxes, which are typically pegged to the price of raw materials. These raw material prices tend to fluctuate widely. For example, the value of corrugated box shipments were up a strong 10.7 percent in 1994 to $22.7 billion, reflecting the recovery in the general economy, higher demand for corrugated boxes, and higher prices for boxes. That growth continued in 1995, as the value of shipments shot up to $27.9 billion, but in 1996 the value of shipments fell sharply, to $25.9 billion, as slackening demand, drawing down of inventories by customers, and sharp drops in raw material prices led to lower unit sales volumes and lower box prices. The market recovered, rising to $27.7 billion in 1997 and $30.1 billion in 1998. Projections called for 1999 to see a record $32.6 billion in value of shipments.

The U.S. corrugated product box industry produced all-time records in volume shipments during the 1990s as well. In 1996, shipments reached a record 376.2 billion square feet (bsf) of finished corrugated boxes, cartons, and shipping containers. By 1998 that total had reached another record, 402.6 bsf. Corrugated box and container product shipments accounted for 99 percent of the industry shipment total in 1998, while solid fiber boxes made up the small remainder.

Making Corrugated Board. Corrugated medium and linerboard are made into corrugated board at box plants. In 1998 the value of the corrugated board market in the United States was more than $9.3 billion. Many weights, thicknesses, and combinations of liners and corrugated medium are used to make different types of corrugated board. In this process, flat corrugated medium board is softened with heat and moisture and passed between a set of corrugating rolls to form it into flutes. Adhesive is applied to the flute tip on one side of the medium. A separate, single face linerboard is then brought into contact with the fluted medium under heat and pressure to produce a single facer web.

This web is conveyed to the double backer station, where adhesive is applied to the exposed flute tips and the double back liner is applied. The combined corrugated board is then passed over a series of hot plates to set the adhesive. Modern corrugating machines run at a variety of speeds, ranging from as low as 100 feet per minute (fpm) to as high as 1,000 fpm, depending on the type of corrugated board under production.

After this, the corrugating board is cut into individual sheets, or blanks, on a trimmer-cutter. The blanks are then fed to a printer-scorer-slotter or some other device, which turns the blank into a flat box that can then be opened and glued by the end user.

Recycled Corrugated. Corrugated boxes have the image of being "environmentally correct" because they can be recycled into new boxes and other products. That image is to a large extent justified, since the recycled fiber content of corrugated is generally the highest of any paper product—as of 1997 it was 66 percent and still climbing. While corrugated products are often reused and the majority is recycled, some corrugated boxes do end up as waste in landfills.

To produce recycled linerboard and recycled corrugating medium, many paperboard mills use both preconsumer and postconsumer old corrugated containers (OCC). Preconsumer waste is corrugated materials such as off-rolls and trimmings from box plants. Postconsumer waste includes boxes that have been used for shipping and subsequently discarded. In 1997, pulp and paper producers used more than 16 million tons of OCC to make new containers, while another 3.7 million tons of OCC were exported.

Standard corrugated boxes are fairly easy to recycle since they are printed lightly and require little or no deinking. The pulp made from OCC needs little cleaning and does not need to be bleached. Unlike many grades of recycled paper, OCC suffers a minimal loss in fiber strength and other physical properties. However, there is a limit to how many times fibers can be recycled. For example, Asian corrugated boxes, which have been recycled many times due to chronic virgin fiber shortages in those countries, tend to be weaker and less resistant to water than U.S. corrugated boxes. The fiber quality of Asian OCC is so low that many American recycling mills exclude it from their processes.

Current Conditions

In the late 1990s, the domestic corrugated box industry consisted of 1,740 establishments operated by a total of 996 companies. Of the 1,740 establishments, about 60 percent were independent operations (not associated with a paperboard mill that produces linerboard and corrugating medium) and 40 percent were fully integrated plants (where there is a paperboard mill, a corrugated plant, and a sheeting plant). These establishments include both corrugated plants, which take corrugating medium and linerboard and make it into containerboard, and sheeting plants, which take finished containerboard and make it into boxes. The total number of U.S. establishments continued to decrease in the late 1990s as downsizing and merger activity helped consolidate the industry and eliminate some smaller operations.

The southeast and west central regions of the United States have been among the fastest growing areas for the production of corrugated packaging. In the late 1990s, these regions accounted for more than 42 percent of total U.S. corrugated shipments. The Southwest has also been an area of significant growth.

Industry Growth Predicated on Other Industries. The fortunes of the corrugated and solid fiber box manufacturing industry have historically risen and fallen with the shipping needs of other industries. In fact, some financial analysts use corrugated packaging as an indicator of overall economic activity. The robust U.S. economy allowed the corrugated box industry to grow the value of shipped products from $25.5 billion in 1997 to $33.14 billion in 2000. Over the same time period, employment in the industry grew from 124,641 to 134,521. However, weak economic conditions in the United States during the early 2000s were expected to take their toll on the industry.

Pricing of U.S. box production generally reflects the pricing of its underlying materials—mostly linerboard and corrugating medium. In the early 1990s, domestic prices of corrugated boxes and their raw materials were quite low, shackled by the unusually long U.S. economic slowdown in the late 1980s and early 1990s, too much box making capacity, and lower demand for boxes. The average price for corrugated boxes ranged between about $44 per thousand square feet (msf) and $50 per msf through the 1990s, depending on the economy, available capacity, and inventories. Prices for box materials also varied significantly during the 1990s. After reaching a peak of $480 per short ton in 1995, linerboard prices plummeted, and by 1998 it was just $380 per ton. In 1998, the average price was $370 per ton. However, in 1999 linerboard prices began slowly increasing and that recovery continued into 2000. Corrugating medium followed much the same trend, reaching a peak of $470 per ton in 1995 before dropping dramatically to $265 per ton by 1998. In 1999, however, prices began to move up, reaching $325 per ton in March; prices were expected to increase throughout 2000.

Preprinted Linerboard. One of the major recent changes in the corrugated box industry has been the growing use of preprinted linerboard. This product is used to make boxes with a white enamel surface that can be printed on with four-color graphics, while the rest of the box remains the same unbleached brown color. The main reason for the growth of preprint has been the growing belief by manufacturers that an attractive box can influence consumer buying decisions at the "point of purchase" in the store. Simply put, an attractively packaged product is more likely to be purchased than one in a brown box. Some studies have shown that up to 80 percent of buying decisions are made at the point of purchase, so the additional advertising from a colorful box can help influence that decision. Shipments of valueadded, highly graphical boxes made from preprinted linerboard increased at a rate of about 7 percent a year throughout the late 1990s, compared with growth of 2 percent for all corrugated packaging products.

Competitors. One of the market threats to corrugated packaging is flexible plastic films. These products—mostly stretch and shrink wraps—became more competitive with corrugated products in the late 1990s, at least in domestic markets. Also, some companies began to employ re-usable plastic containers to ship products internally from one company location to another.

However, the corrugated container industry has responded to these kinds of market threats by producing lighter weight, higher strength products that reduce shipping costs for box users. In addition, features such as visual appeal (of boxes made from preprint linerboard) and improved resistance to moisture should help corrugated boxes compete in other areas.

Industry Leaders

The industry leaders in this category tend to be the same as the leaders in the production of containerboard since so much of box production is fully integrated. Some of the leading corrugated and solid fiber box producers include Boise Cascade; Packaging Corporation of America; Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.; Weyerhaeuser Co.; and Temple-Inland, Inc. Other significant players include International Paper Co. and Willamette Corp.

America and the World

The United States is a major player in the global market for corrugated products, both as a producer and as an exporter. Strong export demand for American corrugated products in the 1990s, in fact, helped keep the U.S. industry healthy. For example, in 1998 U.S. exports of corrugated paperboard products were up for the ninth consecutive year, with a 6 percent increase in value and a 4 percent increase in volume. In 1998, U.S. corrugators exported a record 2.33 million metric tons of finished corrugated boxes, containers, and related products. While U.S. sales have fluctuated in recent years, foreign sales have continued to be a growth area for domestic producers. Despite the Asian financial crisis, U.S. corrugators increased their sales noticeably to Japan and other Asian countries. In 1998, U.S. exports of corrugated containers and finished packaging commodities were shipped mainly to Mexico (55 percent) and Canada (21 percent). However, there were large increases in exports to several Latin American countries. Exports as a percentage of total corrugated box industry shipments grew from less than 1 percent in 1989 to nearly 3 percent in 1998.

The value of U.S. corrugated products imports was comparatively small in 1998, at $156 million. However, this was 132 percent higher than the 1993 total of $67.2 million. Imports increased every year from 1991 to 1998. Principal suppliers of corrugated products to the United States in 1998 were Canada (65 percent) and Mexico (10 percent).

International Competitiveness. Since U.S. container-board producers are often the low-cost producers in world markets, U.S. corrugated products tend to be very competitive in global markets. When the U.S. dollar is low against foreign currencies, U.S. corrugated products are even more competitive. This was the case in the early to mid-1990s, when U.S. corrugated exports boomed. However, by 1996 the combined effect of Mexico's fiscal crisis and the rising value of the dollar threatened to erode some of these export gains—since Mexico's ability to purchase corrugated products was damaged and the rising dollar raised the effective cost of U.S. products in foreign markets. The U.S. dollar remained relatively strong through the rest of the decade, though it weakened somewhat in 1999. Despite these currency difficulties, the U.S. foreign shipment level in 1998 was roughly 30 percent higher than foreign sales of European Union corrugators and almost four times the amount shipped by Japan.

Worldwide shipments of corrugated packaging reached $54 billion in 1995 and were expected to reach $64 billion by 2000. As the global low-cost producer, the United States was expected to maintain its 35 percent share of the total number of boxes produced into the early 2000s; that share amounted to more than 28 million metric tons in 1998. Growing economies in Asia, Eastern Europe, and South America may become more important to the U.S. industry if they are unable to satisfy domestic needs for packaging and shipping containers. However, pulp and paper facilities are being constructed at a rapid pace in many of these markets—particularly in Asia—and many nations may be able to satisfy their domestic demand for corrugated packaging more quickly than was once thought.

Although the U.S. corrugating industry is the world's largest, it needs to continue to increase the productivity of its corrugator and sheet plants by staying competitive on labor and operating costs. The industry will also need to do a better job of responding to customers by developing or implementing new graphics, coatings, inks, and dyes. Through computer technology, the industry will also have to streamline the process of ordering, producing, and transporting corrugated products, both domestically and worldwide.

Research and Technology

Much of the research and technology in corrugated box production throughout the 1990s focused on improved process control and computerized order entry and production scheduling.

One area of concern to researchers is twist warp—the loss of flatness—in linerboard when it is converted into corrugated board. This problem was relatively un-known until the past few years, when corrugating machines began to run at faster speeds—around 1,000 feet per minute. At these speeds, linerboard with twist warp can cause malfunctions on the corrugator. While paperboard producers are currently focusing on making operating changes to minimize the problem, more research is needed into the fundamental reason for twist warp in order to help solve the problem.

Another promising research area for corrugated products manufacturers involves recycling. Traditionally, manufacturers of boxes for applications where the box becomes wet (such as for shipping produce) used corrugated materials treated with chemical wet strength agents. Although these agents make the box resistant to moisture, they also make it almost impossible to recycle since it will not break down during the recycling process. However, a paper chemical manufacturer, Georgia-Pacific Resins Inc., has researched and developed a wet strength agent that will break down during recycling. It is expected that this will expand the recyclability of many old corrugated containers.

Other research efforts will focus on how to maximize quality and minimize cost as the U.S. corrugated box industry attempts to preserve its strong market advantages throughout the next century.

Further Reading

Paper, Paperboard, Pulp Capacity and Fiber Consumption. Washington, D.C.: American Forest & Paper Association, 1998.

"Can Industry Reverse the Profit Crisis?" Pulp & Paper, January 1999.

"Global Outlook: More Misery or Muddling Through?" PIMA's North American Papermaker, December 1998.

United States Census Bureau. "Statistics for Industries and Industry Groups: 2000." Annual Survey of Manufacturers. February 2002. Available from .

U.S. Trade and Industrial Outlook, 1999. New York: McGraw Hill, 1999.

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