Gone are the difficult days of driving to the store when you need or want to buy something. Not too long ago, whenever you ran out of anything—toothpaste, underwear, whatever—you didn’t have the luxury of these items magically appearing at your doorstep days (or even hours) later. And while we’re thankful for this choice and convenience that didn’t exist before, we’re less thankful for all the trash it produces.
Sure, retailers may use eco-friendly packaging or recyclable materials with their mailers and boxes. But even that poses some problems. On top of the fact that recycling isn’t nearly as universally helpful as we’re led to believe, even something as innocuous as a cardboard box still requires packing tape or can get contaminated (and thus deemed unrecyclable).
That is where Boox comes in.
Unlike typical shipments that involve you tossing the packaging, Boox aims to create a circular economy of shipping supplies. Their Boox Box (and recently announced Boox Baag) don’t go in the trash; instead, consumers return them to a pre-approved drop-off spot, and these materials then get refurbished and reused for the next shipment.
Matt Semmelhack, co-founder and CEO of Boox, felt inspired to leave the world a better place for his kids and initially got the idea for the company while working at a meal subscription service. “It was the first time I worked for a mission-driven company,” he explained. “They had a focus to reduce climate impact and help people eat less meat. I oversaw packaging, fulfillment, and delivery, and I saw a pretty big opportunity internally to switch over to reusable.”
Food subscription services don’t have a reputation as the most eco-friendly since they require large boxes and ice packs—sometimes ingredients come individually wrapped in single-use plastics. So Matt proposed a business plan to the company to transition to renewable packaging. They loved his plan but admitted what a massive undertaking it was and how it almost looked like its own company—so Matt did just that. He started Boox, and co-founder Bob Walton joined him shortly after.
They didn’t just plan what the product itself would be, though. After all, what good is a reusable box if no system exists to recover it?
“It works a couple of different ways depending on where you receive a Boox, either in the US or the UK,” said Matt. “In the US, when a consumer receives a product in a Boox, there are retailers where you can return it. The box folds flat in this innovative way, and there’s a QR code inside every box and bag unique to the product. That is how we enable our clients to produce dynamic marketing materials, and it’s also how we give consumers return instructions.”
Upon return, the Boox packaging gets refurbished—the most complex part of the process, Matt admitted. He hopes they can one day soon industrialize the process, but for now, the team manually removes all markings, stickers, and tape (which isn’t required for shipment anyway since Boox uses heavy-duty Velcro to seal).
Of course, part of the challenge is getting consumers to change their habits and add a Boox drop-off to their list of errands. While the company encourages people to add this stop to a planned trip, the temptation to toss the packaging in the recycling remains. Actually, that’s one of the reasons why their boxes and bags don’t try to blend into the sea of cardboard boxes and poly mailers that already exist—they want people to take notice and treat Boox differently than something you just throw away.
Sure, consumers know the benefit of doing the right thing for the environment, but Boox entices them even more. By partnering with Happy Returns, which has thousands of return locations at places like FedEx, Staples, and Ulta Beauty, many retailers then sweeten the circular economy deal with discounts and coupons.
“It could be $10 off your purchase at their store,” said Matt. “It seems minor, but that kind of incentive to get a consumer to act is critical. We are starting to understand better and better, as we get better data, that if you want to change the system, you need to change this consumer behavior. “
Boox baags get made from recycled nylon or polyester, and the boxes are lightweight polypropylene. And while Matt firmly believes that single-use anything is never a great answer, he admitted that plastic might actually be a pretty good choice when it comes to the circular economy.
“We are really focused on the system,” he stated. “The material is important, but the overall system has to work. When people tell us why plastic is bad for the environment, they say, ‘It lasts forever. You throw it in the woods, and it will be there in 1,000 years.’ That’s why it’s an incredible material for reuse. When you think about heirloom furniture or hand-me-downs, the reason that they can be reused over and over again is that they last a long time.
“It’s a lot easier just to say ‘No plastic anywhere.’ But I don’t think that’s the right message.”
Without a doubt, if a material existed with the same properties as plastic but didn’t come from fossil fuels, Matt would gladly use it—but we haven’t arrived at that future yet. For now, Boox focuses on reducing virgin and single-use plastics, with the ultimate goal of eliminating single-use waste.
Circular economy can work well on a small scale—say, your neighborhood grocery store accepting milk bottles back when you finish a gallon. But Boox operates countrywide in the US and the UK, with major cities (particularly in the US) thousands of miles apart. How can that scale up?
It’s possible that the future of Boox, and the circular economy as a whole, will look a bit more like it does in the UK, where Boox partners with InPost and consumers return their packaging to lockers in various locations. Not only does it provide an ease of use—people don’t have to go into a dedicated store—but less human handling factors in since the lockers are automated.
That equates to the materials returning in better condition and requiring less refurbishing, resulting in a higher reuse rate. The hope is that Boox packs can eventually go through hundreds of shipments before being recycled and remade into new Booxes.
“Our stated mission is to eliminate single-use waste, which is a pretty big mission,” Matt said. “We’re now starting to see that not only are we delighting customers with more sustainable options, but we’re also demonstrating to our clients that Boox products can make them money in the long run. We’re starting to show that the green choice doesn’t have to be the more expensive one for your bottom line, and that is so important to move the needle.”
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