The box factory next door
All those new jobs come with the smell of rotten eggs
I’ve been spending a lot of time with cardboard boxes lately, in part because I built the baby a mini city out of boxes, where he likes to hide cars, stuffed animals, and sometimes food. I stared at a lot of cardboard boxes as I waited for the paint to dry, which was oddly calming. In my trance, I started to notice that each box had a stamp on it with the name of the factory where it was made. (Go ahead, check your boxes!) My boxes came from all over the country, including nearby (Tracy, Calif.) and faraway (Memphis, Tenn.)
This piqued my interest in cardboard boxes. I knew, from covering Amazon at The Atlantic, that Amazon’s growth pre-pandemic hadn’t really caused a big uptick in box demand, since I’d called around to ask in 2018. All those Amazon boxes were just replacing boxes that would have gone to brick and mortar stores. But now, I found, as consumers keep buying more and more goods during the pandemic, box demand is booming.
Here’s the story I wrote about box demand and its effect on communities across the U.S.:
Amazon city. The blue box is from an International Paper plant in Memphis.
The uptick in box demand is great for U.S. manufacturing. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to make boxes overseas and ship them here, so more demands for boxes means more sales for U.S. box factories. New ones have re-opened in once ailing mill towns, and in places like Green Bay. What’s more, once China stopped taking U.S. recycling in 2018, which I wrote about here, there was more need for factories to take boxes and recycle them into pulp both to send to China and to make in the U.S. There are, by one estimate, 30 updated and new mills in the U.S. announced since 2018.
But look more closely at these mills and you’ll find a lot of unhappy neighbors. Paper mills stink: the process produces hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs. And as companies convert bleached paper mills into factories to make cardboard and pulp, there are a lot of complaints that the stink is getting worse. This story goes into the tensions between the factories, who are rushing to increase production to meet demand, and their neighbors, some of whom say they can’t go outside anymore because of the smell and who worry that the chemicals from the factory are causing major health problems.
A few interesting things to point out: In many cases, the factories are located near majority-Black areas, and there’s a complaint (in Kalamazoo, which I mention briefly in my recent story about the tensions philanthropy causes there) that the government discriminated against Black residents by approving permits for a box factory to expand there.
One of the big concerns that came up again and again was from people who lived near the mills who said that state and federal regulators didn’t seem particularly concerned about the emissions. They said that the government isn’t monitoring for the right chemicals, which made me wonder if this is going to be a case of scientists finding out that there’s something dangerous that comes from mills that we don’t even know about right now. One woman in Georgia even told me that she suspected that a Trump-era executive order that waived fines for polluting industries gave a green light to companies to ignore air quality limits.
I also continue to be shocked by the way we manage discharge, sludge, and chemicals from factories in American manufacturing. In 2014, I wrote a story for The Atlantic about Duke Energy in North Carolina, and found out that coal power plants create a substance called coal ash that has toxic chemicals in it. They must have to put it in trash bags or somehow get rid of it, right? Wrong. They are allowed to just put it in ponds in the ground. A lot of people think that the coal ash then seeps into the groundwater and then into people’s wells. (Duke Energy disputes this.) What I learned from this, aside from the headaches of trying to rationalize with a well-funded and stubborn PR operation, is that a lot of industry can just put waste into ponds. They may try to treat it afterwards, but that treatment doesn’t happen immediately. Yuck.
It turns out that paper mills have a similarly bleak process to dispose of sludge and effluents. In a lot of cases, they can just dump it into nearby rivers or bays. One Florida marine biologist I talked to told me that the paper mill there is allowed to discharge 4,500 pounds of oxygen-consuming material and 8,000 pounds of solids per day into local waters. A water treatment plant that treats waste from 160,000 people would only be allowed to discharge 844 pounds per day of oxygen-consuming material and 844 pounds per day of solids, she says. She used to be able to clam in the bay, now there are no more clams, she says, and over her lifetime, Perdido Bay has essentially died, which she blames on the paper mill. (They dispute this.)
It’s hard not to wonder why we still allow these kinds of chemicals out of the open: here is a drone video of the very gross ponds of effluent near a particularly stinky mill in South Carolina. (This one is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.)
Drone footage captured this footage of the ponds near the South Carolina paper mill. Credit: NCStinks.com
This is a fascinating area to me as more companies talk of onshoring U.S. manufacturing to avoid supply chain issues or of making chip factories or semiconductors in the U.S. It’s all great to talk about bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., but it remains to be seen what communities will think of having manufacturing plants in their backyard and on their rivers and bays. And don’t even get me started on the downsides of the extraction of rare earth metals! It strikes me that the U.S. is trying to do two contradictory things: bring manufacturing back here, and reduce emissions while keeping the air and water clean.
One other item of note: I didn’t really get into the downsides of our huge demand for paper in this story. I used to think that because cardboard was so easily recycled, it didn’t really matter how much I used, because it would just get recycled and used again. Turns out that’s not exactly true - about 3 billion trees are cut down a year to meet our demand for packaging, and boxes can only be recycled about 5-7 times. If the rest of the world starts using packaging and paper like the U.S. does, we’re even more screwed than we already are.
If you’re just joining me, welcome! Here are some links to some of my other supply chain stories, for more reading, plus the Duke Energy coal ash piece.
Our Shopping Obsession is a Boom to Box Makers, But Not to Their Neighbors (The story I just published)