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Pack It Up: the Evolving Business of Protective Packaging

For all the advancements in protective packaging, there appears to be, literally, a lot of room for improvement. Based on the steady stream of Amazon boxes that arrive at my home, a surprising number of non-delicate items occupy boxes ten times their size and come wrapped in volumes of bulky void or, even worse, foam fillers. Is this really the best shippers can do?

Although reality may not quite as bleak as my non-scientific observations, industry insiders recognize things are far from perfect. In the quest to strike a balance between too much and too little packaging, shippers have to take into consideration both the environmental concerns of consumers and those same consumers' expectation that products will arrive undamaged.

So what can be counted as good news?

  • The use of foam has declined, albeit slowly. Spurred by consumer demand for more environmentally friendly options, foam's share of the total protective packaging industry dropped slightly between 2010 and 2014, from 37.1% to 36.8%, according to a recent study by the Freedonia Group. The small drop is attributed to the considerable cost of replacing molded foam as well as the heavy reliance on foam-based solutions when it comes to insulated packaging. However, as analyst Katie Wieser points out in Logistics Management, there are a number of green materials under development that are poised to eventually take the place of foam in insulated shipping applications.
  • Packages are, in fact, getting smaller and more flexible. The switch to dimensional weight pricing in 2014 by UPS and FedEx kick-started the drive toward smaller packaging with less fill. Companies that used loads of bulky void fill to avoid stocking a large assortment of boxes began to change their practices as costs added up. Box on Demand, in Battle Creek, Mich., for example, provides manufacturers with a machine that can produce 400 types of boxes depending on the size of the product. The use of less packaging materials inside the box and the use of less material to make the box result in reduced shipping costs – a formula that a growing number of companies are now considering as long as the integrity of the product remains intact.
  • American consumers are driving the switch to more sustainable paper products and packaging. Forty-two percent are even willing to pay more for such products, according to a study by Asia Pulp & Paper cited in Inbound Logistics. Companies have responded by expanding the variety of fillers with newspapers and recycled paper as well as bamboo and wheat straw. Dell, for example, has been a trailblazer in the packaging arena, exploring the use of agricultural waste in the shape of wheat straw to achieve its 2020 goal of establishing a waste-free packaging stream. The company is also on track to introduce mushroom-based server cushioning this year, a material that resembles Styrofoam but is organic and biodegradable. 
  • Momentum favors sustainable packaging. A large number of major companies such as Microsoft, Nike, Amcor, and Verizon Wireless have joined the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to showcase their commitment to the cause.

What is your take on the progress of protective packaging? Which green materials show the most promise in your opinion? Share your thoughts. 

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