Ugly Boxes Doing Beautiful Things: How You Can Do Sustainability

Posted by: Cat Cook on 5/10/16 7:51 AM

Introducing: The NOLS Ugly Box

Order something from the NOLS online store and you may be surprised by what shows up on your doorstep: a not-so-pretty cardboard box, slightly worn and clearly used, possibly wearing a label from another company. While many online retailers take great care in packaging their products in a brand-centric, aesthetically-pleasing container, NOLS is thinking in a different way: why use a new box when you can reuse an old one?

The NOLS Ugly Box

Photo by Kirk Rasmussen.

Enter the NOLS Ugly Box Campaign, a new system that relies on reusing old packaging, aiming to reduce our environmental impact by ceasing the unnecessary purchase and disposal of cardboard. Used boxes are generated from our colleagues’ personal shipments, students receiving care packages from loved ones, and the many shipments that NOLS Headquarters (HQ) receives throughout the year.

In the first few weeks of the campaign, NOLS sent out between 150 and 200 repurposed boxes. Rather than being tossed in a trash can or recycling bin, we reuse these boxes, filling them with a cool new NOLS T-shirt, water bottle, first aid kit, or publication, and then ship them off!

The Origins of the Ugly Box Campaign

Reused boxes

Photo by Kirk Rasmussen.

The overabundance of cardboard used for packaging and shipping purposes is not unique to NOLS. Over 85% of products sold in the United States are packaged in cardboard, and as more and more people order items from the internet, cardboard is increasingly relied on for containment and shipping purposes. The e-commerce industry—the fastest-growing user of containerboard—has doubled in the past five years and continues to thrive. This means more cardboard has to be made and then disposed of. As NOLS’ online store continues to grow, every product ordered comes in a cardboard box—sometimes, that box is even embedded within a larger box—and then it leaves again in yet another box. Rather than continue to be part of the problem, NOLS devised a solution.

The man behind the Ugly Box campaign is Justin Alexandre, the retail coordinator at NOLS Headquarters in Lander, Wyoming. Justin sees firsthand how much stuff comes in and out of HQ, which includes supplies distributed to international NOLS locations and items purchased for and from the NOLS online store.

One day, an item was returned to the NOLS Store in a box bearing a sticker that caught Justin’s attention. Originally from Northwest River Supplies (NRS), the sticker declared the package an “Ugly Box” that was previously used and had been repurposed. Justin borrowed the idea from the NRS and began a similar system at NOLS, encouraging the reuse of boxes and asking coworkers to donate their used cardboard boxes rather than buying new ones and tossing or recycling the old cardboard.

This small shift in practices is a huge step for sustainability, allowing NOLS to lessen the demand for natural resources and manufacturing and to reduce waste. Setting up the system was easy, says Justin: “it required stickers, one mass email, and three boxes placed around the building. I don’t know why more places aren’t doing this.”

How the Ugly Box Helps the World

Steel Recycling Bales

Photo from Wikipedia.

The goal of this initiative is to rely completely on Ugly Boxes for NOLS retail purchases and to promote re-use among our customers. Creating paper and cardboard products requires logging, which can put a strain on lumber resources. The actual manufacturing process is very water- and energy-intensive. Though the production of recycled paper and cardboard does consume less energy, water, and natural resources than manufacturing from raw materials, an even more sustainable alternative is to reduce the demand for cardboard overall. By reusing cardboard in the form of an Ugly Box, NOLS is reducing our need for raw resources and mitigating the environmental costs involved with manufacturing.

Another ecological benefit of the Ugly Box Campaign is that it helps divert material from the waste stream. Cardboard and paper comprise the largest component of solid municipal waste worldwide. Some used cardboard is destined for landfills. Though technically biodegradable, the microbial breakdown of paper and cardboard creates methane as a byproduct. Methane is a particularly powerful greenhouse gas, nearly 30 times as capable of trapping heat as carbon dioxide.

A great deal of cardboard does get recycled and, although it’s a better alternative than landfills, even recycling has its pitfalls. The process requires transport to appropriate facilities, which is often costly and results in further carbon emissions. An additional obstacle is that recycling relies on market prices for cardboard, which fluctuate depending on the economy. These factors play a significant role in Fremont County, where NOLS Headquarters is located. The recycling program here is currently looking to downsize due to the cost of transport and processing, as well as the low demand for recyclables. While metals and hazardous materials will still be accepted, cardboard, glass, and some plastics may not be at Fremont County waste facilities in the near future. By providing a sustainable option for used cardboard in the community, the Ugly Box may save material from winding up in a landfill in the future.

Carrying on NOLS’ Values

Patagonia scenery

Photo by Sanne Hilbrich.

The Ugly Box Campaign embodies many of the values taught on NOLS courses. Staying true to principles taught in the field, the NOLS Ugly Box brings Leave No Trace ethics to the frontcountry by reducing the environmental impact of the organization as a whole. We are assuming responsibility for the waste we produce as a business and hold ourselves accountable to do something about it.

This small commitment to sustainability and stewardship helps us protect our outdoor classrooms. Holding fast to our leadership goals, we hope to set an example other businesses and individuals can follow. When you see that “Ugly Box” sticker, know that you have helped the world in a small way. Help us to continue the Ugly Box movement by sending forward your next box!

By Cat Cook, Sustainability Intern, and Justin Alexandre, NOLS Retail Coordinator

Cat is the spring 2016 sustainability intern.