How to get the most out of your packaging foam, packing peanuts and bubble wrap
For any small business, three important types of internal packaging are bubble wrap, packing peanuts and packaging foam. All are designed for protection, but each product has its own specific properties and applications worth knowing about.
Packaging foam is made of air-filled polyethylene cells. Polyethylene, a thermoplastic, is a polymer of ethylene. To make foam, long chains of ethylene molecules are aerated while molten, and then cooled. This process results in the characteristic air bubbles.
Foam is available in both flat or ‘egg-box’ form, and subsequently rolled up — from which sheets of your desired dimensions can be cut. It can also come attached to the inside of bags or envelopes, for postal applications (such as sending electronics).
Its structure gives it cushioning properties, enabling it to guard items against scratching and scuffing in transit and storage.
Also known as ‘packing chips’ and ‘loose fill’, packing peanuts are made of polystyrene, which has been mixed with pentane or hexane (gases acting as a blowing agent) to create foam. Steam is then used to form the foam into pieces of the desired shape and size. The shape and size can vary, with some resembling peanuts and others being more tubular.
Packing peanuts are designed to fill gaps between items in packages, and have a wide variety of applications, from protecting fruit to cushioning DVDs and CDs.
Bubble wrap is available in rolls of sheeting, with air bubbles arranged in a regular pattern. Polyethylene resin pellets are extruded, melted down, and rolled into film. The film then goes through rollers that have holes in them, so the film is vacuumed into bubbles and air is trapped within them.
This water-resistant wrap is available with various sizes of bubble, from very small to very large. Small rolls or large rolls can be purchased too, depending on the quantity that is needed. Bubble wrap is also used to line envelopes for extra protection for items such as CDs that are being shipped.
How does protective packaging apply to small businesses?
Each type of protective packaging has different qualities.
Packing peanuts are cheap, so they can be bought in high volumes at low cost. One obvious downside is that they can spill on the floor when items are lifted out of boxes — an absolute nightmare.
Bubble wrap is water-resistant and an excellent protector against dirt and dust. Additionally, because it comes in various roll sizes, it is easy to buy just the amount you need. However, rolls of bubble wrap can be quite thick, so be mindful if you’re space-saving.
Foam is tough and durable. It resists mould and tearing and is lightweight, so it adds little to shipping costs. It can also be impregnated with carbon or treated with surfactants to make it anti-static, so it is ideal for using to pack electronics. Foam is more costly than bubble wrap or peanuts, but it’s versatility is brilliant.
The uses of protective packaging can be illustrated by thinking about their role if your business were to move premises.
Packing peanuts provide cushioning when several items, such as telephone handsets, are put together in a box. The peanuts stop the handsets from knocking into each other. Although bubble wrap could be used, it would need to be cut and secured with tape. In this case, peanuts are an efficient option.
Foam sheets can be used to wrap computer monitors, for example. They will also prove useful when crockery from communal areas is being put in a box: layering sheets between plates and bowls can stop them from getting chipped and cracked. Foam could be a wiser choice than bubble wrap, in these cases, because the weight of the items being wrapped might cause the bubbles to burst.
Bubble wrap is ideal for some fragile items though. For example, you can protect wall canvases by wrapping them in bubble wrap, so they don’t tear. It can also be wrapped liberally around the ends of chair legs, so as to stop them piercing other items that you’re taking to your new office.
Recycling protective packaging
Packing peanuts are increasingly being made with recycled polystyrene. This of course means it can be recycled again. Packing peanuts are also easy to keep for future use. Once items have been taken out of a box, the peanuts left behind can be put in a bag, ready for when they are next needed. It’s actually also possible to get packing peanuts made from corn starch, which is biodegradable.
Polyethylene, from which both packaging foam and bubble wrap are made, can also be recycled. Like polystyrene, it’s collected by waste collection companies and sent back to packaging manufacturers. It is then shredded, reverse extruded, and formed into pellets — which constitute raw material for more foam and bubble wrap.
For more information about getting the most out of your protective packaging, and how your small business can recycle it, visit our Packaging Clinic.
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