Challenging the Assumptions: Foam-in-Place vs. Paper for In-the-Box Packaging

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Momentum is Gaining to Replace Plastic Foam-in-Place Packaging.

Over 60 years ago the first expanding polyurethane foam products were introduced for the purposes of cushioning products in transit. However, over the past seven years, the use of plastic foam-in-place solutions have been on a downward trend, losing nearly a third of its market share compared to the height of its popularity. What is causing a product that has existed for decades to fall out of favor so rapidly? While environmental concerns play a big role in the movement away from plastic materials, the answer partially lies with an even older product –  paper, as well as the development of cutting-edge technology that is changing our common understanding of what paper can do.

Paper’s Environmental and Consumer Advantages.

Consumers are increasingly aware of the impact their shipping options can have on the environment. In fact, 78% of consumers in the United States wish that more brands used paper instead of plastic for in-the-box packaging and similar attitudes are trending with consumers world-wide. Plastic foam-in-place solutions are chemically based and are classed as Category 1 “highest severity” substances due to their risks of respiratory and skin sensitization, as well as the potential for carcinogenic properties.

Consumer preferences and safety aside, it’s clear that replacing plastic materials with paper makes ecological sense. Paper is recyclable and composed of 100% sustainable materials. On the other hand, plastic waste is a major contributor to pollution that can find its way into the environment with dire consequences. According to National Geographic, of the estimated 400 million tons of plastic produced every year, 40%, or 160 million tons, is used exclusively for primary and secondary packaging applications. Foam-in-place solutions are plastic-based, intended for a single journey’s use and much more difficult to recycle at the curb when compared to paper. As a result, these foam products often wind up in landfills where they can take hundreds of years to break down, if they can decompose naturally at all.

Despite the clear imperative to replace plastic from an environmental standpoint and demonstrated consumer preferences for sustainable packaging, perceptions that foam is necessary for cushioning certain products can linger. This is where Ranpak’s packaging engineering team comes in to remove misconceptions and showcase just how effective paper can be.

Three Ways Packaging Engineering Leads to Paper Cushioning Outperforming Foam-in-Place.

For a cushioning solution to successfully perform its job, it needs to achieve several things.

First, it must adequately protect the item it is cushioning within a box. Engineers can measure the level of protection provided by cushioning materials in a lab setting by recording the G forces experienced by these items within different boxing configurations during a drop. One G is the equivalent of the pressure an object feels from the ground pushing back against the Earth’s gravity in a resting state. Within a scenario where a box falls, the acceleration of the object leads to much higher G forces on impact with the ground. These increased G forces, if not protected against with adequate cushioning, can often lead to objects breaking, chipping, or scratching.

Second, the solution needs to be cost-effective and scalable. The right amount of protection for items will depend on the object’s weight and fragility. Once that amount of cushioning has been determined, it’s possible to engineer a custom solution that balances protection with efficient cost.

Lastly, the process used for applying the cushioning needs to happen as quickly as possible. In a business environment where time is money, the idea that foam is a fast method of filling a box has an appeal to those who are looking to identify what works, but the reality is that foam has no monopoly on speed. Ranpak engineers designed the PadPak® paper cushioning system to be easy to use and refill, with an interface that allows for paper cushions to be rapidly folded and stitched. While expanding foam cushioning systems rely on a mix of chemicals that include isocyanates that must be combined in order to expand, the PadPak system is able to keep up with or outpace the speed of chemical reaction simply by dispensing curbside-recyclable and environmentally sustainable paper.

When working with customers, our engineers run tests to optimize a packaging strategy for each unique product. Thanks to paper expertise honed over hundreds of unique packs, we can directly compare the performance of paper cushioning to the plastic foam it replaced.

Industry Case Study: Aerodynamic Electronics.

Ranpak’s Packaging Engineers were tasked with creating a system for protecting aerodynamic electronic equipment. The test packages were dropped from an 80 cm drop height which is typical for packed products with a weight up to 10 kg.

Results:

  • PadPak drop tests resulted in 16.6 Gs of force compared to 39 Gs with foam-in-place. PadPak paper cushioning reduced the G forces from a drop by 58% over plastic foam.
  • Using equal lengths of PadPak pads, the speed of the packaging was increased compared to the previous foam-in-place packing process which required combining chemicals.
  • Finally, PadPak’s replacement of foam-in-place was more cost-effective, reducing the cost in the box by 57%.

Industry Case Study: Car Headlamps and Turbo Pumps

Protecting headlamps from damage was another scenario where paper cushioning was able to outperform foam-in-place. In this pack job, engineers had more than one product to work with, with different weights and susceptibility to damage.

The products received flat bottom drops, as flat bottom drops occur in 70% of all drop-related shipping accidents. Additionally, flat bottom drops are the most devastating type of drops to packed products. Once again, paper came out on top, demonstrating versatility and resilience.

Results:

  • Across the products being packaged, PadPak improved packaging speed.
  • PadPak performed better than foam-in-place at reducing G forces; up to 44% better in the case of shipping headlights.
  • Overall, PadPak paper cushioning cut in the box costs by a major 73%.