When you’re thinking about carriers and retail boxes, you should know that not all “cardboard” is the same. 

Let’s set aside corrugated boxboard (which is not really “cardboard” and deserves its own post) and focus just on solid fiberboard.  There are numerous types of solid board, all geared to specific needs:  you can’t just ask for board of a certain thickness and color; the grade or type of board is important.

This isn’t a technical post, just a very very basic introduction to the topic:  enough info to let folks new to the beverage business know there’s a difference they need to be aware of.  If you want technical information, try this book.  We know that most brewers are about as interested in seeing a paper mill or a box factory as Bart was in Season 5, Episode 093 of The Simpsons but we’ll get you oriented quickly.

Near the lowest end of the board performance scale is what is they call newsboard.  This material is made primarily of recycled newsprint with relatively short fibers and modest binding compounds (the gunk that holds the fibers together).  When you have a low performance requirement for your packaging and want to keep things cheap, you can use newsboard.  It has a relatively low “bursting strength” (the amount of energy required to poke a hole through it), “tensile strength” (the amount of energy required to pull it apart), and “crush strength” (the amount of energy required to bend it).  For instance, the cardboard packaging insert in a department store dress shirt is probably newsboard.  That board is fine to fold a shirt around, but the stuff isn’t suitable for making a beverage carrier.  It’s so unsuitable that we don’t know of anyone who’s tried it.

There are various grades of board moving up the performance ladder—all of which have their uses (from notebook backs and Christmas gift boxes to food packaging and even furniture).  All the board grades have different “recipes,” mixing a percentage of short fibers from recycled paper and deciduous trees (e.g.,  cottonwood) and long fibers from coniferous trees (e.g., yellow pines); maintaining the right amount of lignin (the natural glue that holds the fibers together on the tree); and providing the right amount of bleaching and other additives for the product.

Let’s think about your carriers for a moment:  A six-pack basket carrier has to hold about 8 pounds.  A six-pack 12oz can carrier (or a four-pack pint can carrier) has to hold about 6 pounds.  A twelve-can pack has to hold about 12 pounds. A twelve-bottle box has to hold over 16 pounds.  That’s a fair bit of weight for paper to hold.  Plus, although you hope your product is always maintained at a constant temperature from your bottling line to your customer’s lips, you know it isn’t.  The package very likely changes temperature several times, and each temperature change involves condensation that gets the carrier wet.  And although you hope the package is handled with love and care all the way, you know it’s not.  Hurried store clerks and customers carrying too many things jostle and tug at the handles in a way that would be sure to tear the board, or so you’d think.  And then of course, there’s the melting ice in the picnic cooler to consider.

These factors led paper mills to develop a special product for us: wet strength beverage board.   It’s called “wet strength” because (you guessed it) it’s designed to maintain about 80% of its strength even when wet.  The board is made from primarily virgin pine fibers (long fibers) and the binding compound they use is designed to hold those long fibers together when wet.  It’s true, your Atlas carrier is mostly virgin fiber.  Someone farmed a tree, harvested it, and pulped it to make your carrier (and many thousands of others).  Don’t get upset—almost all paper comes from trees planted for that purpose, not from ancient forests.  Plus, there has to be some point at which virgin fibers are put into the paper system, and this is the best place.

Now some folks sell carriers made from 100% recycled fibers.  Sounds great, but there are at least two challenges:  First, recycling process has inconsistent inputs.  Think about the mix of pizza boxes, office paper, gum wrappers and other stuff that fills the typical recycling bin).  Second, repulping breaks long, strong fibers into shorter weaker ones.  Shorter fibers mean weaker board.  Weaker board means…crash.

Longer virgin fibers mean stronger, more consistent board.   With wet-strength board, there is less likelihood of a carrier failure and the broken glass and smashed cans that go with it.  Not to mention, there is also less likelihood of broken toes and an unfriendly letter from that lawyer with his picture is on the back of the phone book.

Stronger board also means less board.  Recycled beverage board  in carrier is typically thicker than wet-strength.  They make recycled beverage board thicker, and use more paper, in an effort to compensate for the relative weakness of its fibers.

Wet strength carriers ARE recyclable, by the way.  Remember that recycling is—first and foremost—about saving landfill space.  It only takes a decade or two to grow another paper tree, but we’re stuck with our landfills forever.  When your customers are done with the carriers, they can go into the bin and the fibers start a new life as a notebook back or a macaroni-and-cheese box, or maybe even find their way back to your brewery in a corrugated mother carton.

Give us a call if you want to talk about beverage board or the carriers and boxes we make from it.