Popping the Bubble on Protective Plastic Shipping Packaging

As eCommerce explodes, protective plastic packing materials must decline, and fast.

By Lorne Herszkowicz, Partner at HexcelPack

As eCommerce continues to escalate, we must wrap our hands around product shipping wrap to ensure optimal sustainability and eco-friendliness into the future. While environmentalists were already bracing for the glut of padded mailers, corrugated fiberboard, shrink wrap, and bouncy air pillows the rise in online shopping promises to leave in its wake – the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the timeline.

U.S. eCommerce has grown 44 percent in 2020 with online spending rising steadily, representing over 21 percent of total retail sales for the year. Experts predict this behavior will remain even after the pandemic is contained. A recent survey by McKinsey & Company found a 40 percent net increase in intent among respondents to spend online post-pandemic.

Consequently, plastic pollution is multiplying. Amazon alone produced 465 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2019, according to a recent study by Oceana, producing enough air pillows to circle the globe an astounding 500 times. Meanwhile, market research firm Technavio estimates that demand for filled-air products is likely to swell by $1.16 billion between 2020 and 2024 due to increased online sales.

In short, it is critical that businesses bridge the growing disconnect between our affinity for online shopping and our affinity for… well, our planet.

The good news: in recent years, the technology producing sustainable paper-based alternatives to plastic protective packing has steadily progressed. These paper-based padding solutions carry the potential to deliver myriad benefits comprising strong sustainability, positive brand perception, and exemplary return-on-investment – all while providing optimal product protection.

The sustainability solution

Paper-based packaging products offer drastically improved sustainability, with little to no impact on the environment – and deliver protection proven to outperform plastic bubble packaging and pillows. Unlike single-use plastic bubble packaging, paper is fully curbside recyclable; by contrast, less than 14 percent of the nearly 86 million tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year is recycled. The vast majority is landfilled, incinerated, or left to pollute waterways and poison wildlife.

Conversely, in 2018, over 32 million tons of corrugated boxes were recycled out of nearly 34 million tons of total paper and paperboard recycling, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The recycling rate for corrugated boxes was a remarkeable.96.5 percent.

Making eCommerce product protective packing from the same basic materials as the boxes in which they arrive – namely, paper – is the simplest, most streamlined path to a dramatic uptick in eco-friendliness. Clearly, this is a virtual no-brainer for any business looking to do its part to fight the mounting waste crisis – and in doing so, reap the dividends of a consumer base increasingly considering a brand’s eco-consciousness when making purchasing decisions, online or otherwise.

Builds customer bonds

A positive brand image builds customer loyalty and, in recent years, a brand’s sustainability bona fides have risen toward the top of consumers’ priority lists. Today’s online consumers are increasingly conscious of – and interested in – how businesses operate on a sustainability level, bringing packaging to the forefront of the various factors considered when deciding what brands and companies to patronize.

An IBM/National Retail Federation study found more than 70 percent of respondents would pay, on average, 35 percent more for eco-friendly brands. And a Paper and Packaging Board survey found that 78 percent of consumers would be more likely to buy products packaged in paper or cardboard specifically, because they are better for the environment than other materials. With e-commerce, that eco-consciousness inevitably extends to the protective packaging in which products arrive. When the first thing a customer sees upon opening a box is several feet of plastic wrapping, how could a brand’s sustainability image not take an immediate hit?

Unsurpassed Product Protection

The use of paper-based void filler can be an effective tool to help “pop the bubble on plastic packaging” that, unfortunately, still envelopes today’s packaging industry. Using paper as void fill offers unsurpassed insulation, making packing peanuts and other toxic products antiquated and unnecessary. Good riddance.

The latest paper technologies are engineered to deliver ultimate product protection and packing simplicity for eCommerce. One method is utilizing groundbreaking slit paper technology, converting extensible paper into a three-dimensional, internationally patented cushioning product by making precise cuts at specific angles. This method makes the paper “flex,” expanding its volume while maximizing the strength and stiffness of its fibers. The result is a superior cushioning product proven to outperform environmentally-harmful product protection alternatives – including plastic-based bubble packaging and pillows. It is ideal for shipping even fragile items, and reduces product damage by eliminating, among other adverse events, glass-on-glass contact during the supply chain journey.

Increased return-on-investment

One of the biggest challenges eCommerce businesses face is lowering product return rates. Here, damaged goods are major culprits. Returns can incur hefty hidden costs that cut deeply into profit margins. In fact, while return rates to traditional stores are around 8 percent, this jumps to approximately 25 percent for items bought online, according to research by SaleCycle. Moreover, the quality of the product received is the main factor behind product returns, with over 80 percent of returns due to the product arriving damaged or broken, prompting not only an onerous return process but an erosion of customer trust. Considering this, effective, sustainable packaging solutions are as essential to the bottom line as they are the planet.

The battle between increasing eCommerce and rising eco-consciousness will be present for the long haul. Quite simply, it benefits businesses to embrace paper-based packing solutions – ones that must emerge far more broadly in the 2020s. Both customers and the environment demand it.

About the Author

Lorne Herszkowicz is apPartner at HexcelPack, a developer of eco-friendly, paper-based protective cushioning solutions to replace bubble wrap and other plastic or foam-based materials. www.hexcelpack.com

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