Pandemic Objects: The Cardboard Box

V&A East
May 17, 2020

The sound of your doorbell has taken on a new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown: no longer announcing the arrival of house guests, it is instead the welcome signal of a home delivery package. Whether it be a 5-kilogram supply of fruit and vegetables from the wholesaler now delivering straight to your door, a much-needed beard trimmer sold by Amazon, or that long-awaited book you hope to enjoy during another weekend at home, all deliveries currently have one object in common: the cardboard box.

Receiving a ‘contactless’ home delivery. Image credit: Zofia Trafas White

Receiving your delivery is now a ‘contactless’ procedure accompanied by a suite of social distancing rules. As you peer from behind a gently-opened front door, a masked courier deposits the package on your doormat, before stepping 2 metres away, and waving goodbye. At this moment of brief exchange, we wish the courier well, hoping they continue safely with their valued work, as key workers in the vast delivery industry. Then follows the dilemma: is the parcel safe for me to touch?

Lockdown deliveries. Image credit: Zofia Trafas White

Here, the humble cardboard box reveals its complex, often conflicting, new meanings at this time of pandemic. On the one hand, it signifies for many the joy and relief of shopping ‘safely’ from the confines of home. In a reality where venturing outside is restricted under lockdown rules, and can also be the source of anxiety, the package and its contents can deliver a small sense of normality and comfort. While for those self-isolating, it has also been a vital utility. Indeed, the recent weeks of lockdown have seen a surge of home deliveries, with even e-commerce giants struggling to fulfil demands and hiring fleets of new workers – Amazon reportedly recruited over 100,000 additional staff in March alone and is projecting a 20% increase in profits. Beyond household deliveries, cardboard is also an object serving on the frontlines of public health services, enabling mass deliveries of vitally needed medical equipment. In this sense, cardboard, as a carefully designed packaging system, has reached its zenith of functionality – neatly and safely enabling the global distribution of goods.

On the other hand, the cardboard box represents a new pandemic worry. It is, potentially, a surface carrying the virus into your home. The outbreak was marked by a flurry of articles relaying scientific advice on coronavirus longevity on various material surfaces. From the dangers of metal door handles to virus survival rates on plastic buttons on clothes, cardboard has been frequently featured on lists of material surfaces upon which the virus might survive, risking our infection. A Forbes report from 15 March 2020 is typical of the many that circulated, warning that ‘new research out of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) finds that the novel coronavirus HCoV-19 (SARS-2) causing the COVID-19 pandemic can survive for days on plastic and stainless steel and even lasts up to a full day on a cardboard surface.’ And while the overall risk was judged low, recent weeks have abounded in procedural advice – from washing hands after touching cardboard boxes to meticulously disinfecting them. Distributers, alive to the scrutiny, now regularly proclaim assurances on pandemic mitigation procedures in packing rooms. The cardboard box has joined the league of everyday objects that are now a risk that needs to be managed.

Playing with cardboard while staying at home. Image credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In many ways, this shift in meanings for the cardboard box is seismic. Prior to the pandemic, the cardboard box was so ubiquitous an object, it was almost invisible. It was the delivery mechanism, but never the main point of interest. It is often immediately discarded after receipt, unless dutifully recycled, or occasionally repurposed as a raw material – from home DIY projects to even some iconic works of Modern Art (tempting to think here of Picasso’s Guitars and assemblages by Joseph Beuys). The recent lockdown has no doubt seen many household cardboard creations. A brilliant colleague of mine recently transformed one into a desk.

Patent drawing from the early history of cardboard boxes. Image credit: Gair, Robert. 1894. Paper Box. US Patent 519, 451A, filed November 15 1892, issued May 8, 1894

The cardboard box has accompanied our modern world for over a century. Corrugated boxboard has been used as a shipping material since the 1870s. The invention of one of the first folding cardboard boxes is attributed to paper manufacturer Robert Gair Company of Brooklyn, New York, who date its creation to a fortuitous machine cutting accident in 1879. A series of patents for more systematised folding box designs followed in the 1890s, along with many others entering circulation, eclipsing the previously dominant wooden shipping crate. And while there have been a few major design innovations in the decades since, such as Tetra Pak food packaging or Amazon’s box-finding algorithm, the core look and feel of the corrugated brown cardboard box hasn’t changed. It is even celebrated with its own emoji.

Now, as the surge in home deliveries and cardboard box shipping continues during our challenging times of pandemic, this once mundane object will be at the centre of the disruption of another bigger, important system: recycling. At the end of March, the Recycling Association issued a stark warning on the prospect of the UK facing a cardboard shortage as a result of the pandemic. Increased demand coupled with the challenge of many local councils suspending regular recycling collections poses a real threat for an industry that relies on recycled fibre for cardboard manufacture. Moreover, fibre trade is an international market that has been strained by recent border closures. This pandemic is proving to be a stress test for many of our global systems, and in the case of cardboard, it is revealing the fragility of a logistics system that heavily relies on a single material. Recent recycling challenges are also exacerbating the already worrying environmental cost of online retail, where packaging waste and over-packaging have long been problems. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling guilt at the recent increase of cardboard passing through our household.

Cardboard for recycling. Image credit: Jon Moore on Unsplash

As we emerge from this crisis it will be important to remember what was learned and for the industry to seize the opportunity to re-think how deliveries could be more efficient and resilient. How might we optimise packaging for a post-Covid-19 world, and think creatively about reusable alternatives? Truly sustainable materials practices remain more important than ever as we seek to mitigate our environmental impact and safeguard our common future.

Cardboard that ends up in rubbish landfills. Image credit: Antoine Giret on Unsplash

Further reading

Related objects from the collections

Fancy dress astronaut’s helmet by Richard Blundel

Fancy dress astronaut’s helmet, Richard Blundel, 1969, Maidenhead, England. Museum no. B.610-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This child’s astronaut helmet was made in the historic year of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing in 1969. It illustrates both the contemporary fascination with the Space Race and televised moon missions, as well as the prevalence of cardboard as a household material for creative DIY projects. Here corrugated cardboard is combined with papier-mâché and emulsion paint. Its maker was 8 years old and recalls being inspired to create it by Blue Peter, a BBC TV children’s programme – an enduring source of home craft projects that resonates with widespread home schooling during this pandemic.

Digitel 2000 telephone and packaging by Kristian Kirks Telefonfabrikke

Digitel 2000, telephone and packaging, Kristian Kirks Telefonfabrikker, 1980s, Denmark. Museum no. W.16:1, 2-2003. W.16:1, 2-2003

It is considerably rare to find museum objects collected with their original packaging, particularly instances of cardboard boxes. This 1980s Digitel 2000 telephone is an interesting case study that survives with its original box. It was given to the V&A in 2001 by British Telecom Ltd. who were dispersing their collection of historic telecommunication artefacts to national museums. This brightly-coloured green handset featured a blue-ink drawing on its bespoke printed box. It was available as one of the General Post Office’s (later British Telecom) ‘special range’ telephones.

SPLAT Chair by Sam Morgan / Spinifex Eco-Design with Daisa Centazzo

SPLAT Chair, Sam Morgan / Spinifex Eco-Design with Daisa Centazzo, 2009, Britain. Museum no. B.91-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This purpose-designed children’s chair embraces the use of untreated, biodegradable cardboard as a material for sustainable and environmentally-friendly furniture. Conceived by London-based design studio Spinifex Eco-Design, it was intended to be easily recyclable once out of use. Its playful curved shape and storage holes were meant to encourage play.

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