Packing peanuts present a host of problems for packers and package recipients alike. Peanuts - technically known as expanded polystyrene loose fill - are messy, marginally effective for void filling and cushioning, and exceedingly difficult to recycle or dispose of.
Manufacturers of packing peanuts continue to develop alternative products at a rapid clip in an effort to minimize these various drawbacks. Anti-static peanuts eliminate static cling, making peanuts go where they are supposed to go - and stay there. Biodegradable peanuts, usually corn starch based, dissolve in water and produce no toxic waste. Recycled peanuts, made from various recipes of post-consumer foams, set a good environmental example for reuse. Paper peanuts, made from a variety of recycled papers, have become common product line extensions for manufacturers and converters of industrial paper products.
However, all these innovations in packing peanuts are much like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. At the end of the day, loose fill of any variety is still messy and lags behind competitive products in cushioning and void fill performance. Anti-static peanuts are expensive. Many types of biodegradable peanuts are dusty and attract rodents. Paper peanuts are heavy, dusty, and hard to handle in bulk. And regardless of the chemical formulation, peanuts remain difficult for consumers to handle, recycle, and dispose of.
Packing peanuts make poor void fill because they settle in the box. But peanut users need not settle. Alternatives to peanuts abound, giving packers more options than they may realize. Here are four of the best.
Inflatable air bags
Several manufacturers offer systems which inflate small polyethylene air bags on demand or in batches. Systems are available for high and low speed operations. Inflatables are clean, attractive, and almost literally as light as air. Inflatables require little material per application, and polyethylene film is reasonably priced and easily recycled. Inflatable systems require a modest capital investment, but large volume packers can negotiate discounts on equipment by entering in long term contracts with the manufacturer.
Moving from hi tech to no tech, industrial papers such as brown kraft paper and newsprint continue to be an appealing option for void fill and cushioning. Paper is inexpensive, easy to handle, and fast to apply. Most dunnage papers have 100% post-consumer recycled content and are easily recycled. Paper conveys a strong and positive message to the environmentally minded consumer.
These systems mix two liquid chemicals in a polyethylene bag on-site to create a block of foam that slowly hardens, either as a mold or conformed around the product being packaged. Foam-in-place offers superior cushioning and block-and-brace performance, which is why it is often used for consumer electronics packaging. Contrary to popular perception, foam-in-place is safe and all materials are easily recycled by the consumer. Because foam-in-place offers a wide range of on-demand and pre-mold dispensing systems and foams come in several densities, it is an excellent choice for repair and refurbishing operations and packaging any heavy and/or fragile product.
Similar in concept to inflatable air bags, multi-layer paper systems bond together two or three plies of paper and slightly crumple them on-site to create variable or predetermined lengths of cushioning/void fill material. These "paper pillows" offer cushioning and void fill performance superior to plain dunnage paper and carry the same positive environmental message.
Every application is different, but the odds are at least one of these alternatives can be integrated into an existing packaging line configuration. When reviewing alternatives to packing peanuts, it is best to first pinpoint the ideal cushioning/void fill material, and then consider delivery options. Product size, weight, fragility, and value, along with method of shipping, determine the best material for the job. Line configuration, desired throughput rates, and available space are the key factors in determining which delivery system to use.
Brad Shorr is a sales and marketing consultant based near Chicago, Illinois. With an extensive background in B2B and the packaging industry, he specializes in sales coaching and training, online marketing strategy, and business blog development.