April 25 2007 09:17 AM

Getting products from Point A to anywhere else requires in the box packaging to protect the contents from damage in transit. Oftentimes, loose fill, such as packing peanuts, is selected because it provides the most cost-effective means of protection. In the past, shippers were faced with a dilemma of whether to go green by choosing natural, biodegradable loose fill products, or saving green by using petroleum-based materials. But that has changed within the last few years, as more companies are finding that they can save the planet while saving cash too.


Natural Loose Fill for Peanuts

Available in multiple sizes and from many sources, loose fill packaging is very effective at filling voids between the protected item and the carton carrying it. Traditionally, the loose fill is manufactured from expanded polystyrene a petroleum-based material. Natural products made of potato or corn starch are also available, but higher pricing (often as much as twice the price of their EPS brethren) realistically eliminated them from consideration for many shippers.


But the dramatic increases in gas prices have adversely affected the price of petroleum-based materials, like EPS loose fill, as well, driving the cost up considerably. While this was occurring, manufacturing advances, coupled with the favorable economics of volume increases for starch-based products, have driven their pricing down. The result is that while plastics pricing has increased, natural loose fill pricing has fallen to the point where the two enjoy relative parity.


While price is certainly a factor, the prime consideration is still protection. Loose fill packaging has been tested against competitors under drop testing, creep testing and vibratory settling environments. All products scored within one percent of each other, so performance of the natural products was certainly equal to the industry standards.


The combination of price and performance prompted large mail order sales company SMC Corp. to make the switch to natural products earlier this year. This high-volume shipper has multiple packing stations that fill three to five packages per minute, averaging 7,000 to 10,000 packages per day. The company has used loose fill for almost 20 years originally switching from shredded newspaper because of the increased flowability of the loose fill. Nearly a year ago, it made the switch to natural loose fill.


Loose fill is poured into the package bottom, and the item is then inserted and covered with loose fill. With the wide variety of products that are shipped porcelain figurines, spun glass, mirrors and other fragile items, as well as books, wooden objects and different sized objects within the same box a cushioning material, which will migrate to open spaces within the box, is required. Free-flowing loose fill fits the bill perfectly. The natural loose fill also offered tangible results in terms of lowered return rates.


Nothing to Sneeze At

A major drawback of the biodegradable loose fill of yesteryear was its cleanliness, or more appropriately, the lack thereof. These starch-based products were more friable than their plastic counterparts, so they were inherently dusty. This dust was not only in the customers boxes, but the dust was also prevalent near the packing station and was then tracked throughout the plant.


Advances in manufacturing technology allow current all-natural products to be made with a harder outer surface and a stouter overall design. This provides optimal interlocking of the S shaped materials with no breakdown into dust. The result is a cleaner, free-flowing material that protects like plastic but with all of the environmental benefits that customers demand.


Natural products also eliminate static, which causes problems for shippers and end customers. From the packing and shipping side of the table, static electricity enables the loose fill to cling to packers, boxes, containers and more. When packages arrive at their destinations, end customers learn that the pesky static causes loose fill to cling to everything. Natural products eliminate the static and the problems associated with it.


The Customer Is Always Right

The technological advances that allow economical manufacturing of all-natural loose fill come as consumers are demanding more environmentally friendly products. Going green is certainly well entrenched within the public eye, as evidenced by recent articles in Time, Vanity Fair, the LA Times and others.


Aside from the groundswell of consumer interest in green packaging, major retailers are pushing in that direction as well. Office products retailer Staples is committed to environmental leadership, as evidenced by its desire to develop and source environmentally preferable products. Office Depot has a similar stance on environmental stewardship. Municipalities on the forefront of environmental awareness include Santa Monica, California, which recently banned styrofoam food containers.


Customers, for their part, are concerned with dependence on foreign oil and CFCs. While this is all well and good, how does an end customer really know whether the loose fill within his or her package is biodegradable or not? If it looks the same and has the same shape, how does the customer tell the difference?


Lamps Plus, a retailer of lamps and lighting accessories, uses a tip-in card to educate its customers. The card quickly calls attention to the fact that there are no plastic peanuts crawling up your arm! and goes on to explain the environmental benefits of its green packaging. Customers can re-use the loose fill, recycle it or dump it out into their yards and turn the hose onto it. Within minutes, the loose fill has disappeared, leaving no trace on the yard or in the groundwater.


Green packaging is becoming preferred by customers for many reasons. As the pricing of petroleum-based products has increased, pricing for natural products has decreased, allowing both shippers and customers to see green and enjoy the positive results of their efforts.


Scott Dowrey is Senior VP of Sales and Marketing at Storopack. Contact him at info@storopackinc.com, call 513-874-0314 or visit www.storopackinc.com.