Paper or Plastic: A Fresh Look at Protective Packaging

Feb. 1, 2010
Packaging should ensure your product arrives at its destination in the same condition it was in when it left your facility.

Across the board, companies are factoring the environment into the packaging decision-making process. This includes everything from raw materials to energy to efficient transportation and distribution.

Regardless of what a company manufactures or distributes, typically, the need exists to get products from point A to point B without having quality, shelf life and structural damage issues. To help achieve that objective, some form of protective packaging is usually involved.

In the past couple of years, major protective packaging technology improvements have been commercialized. Today, plant and warehouse personnel have an even greater number of types to choose from, depending on product and shipping requirements.

Protective packaging options come in many forms. However, boiled down to the basics, they tend to be either paper- or plastic-based.

To achieve the maximum balance of product protection and cost effectiveness for your product, operation, corporate philosophy, budget and/or shipping environment, it is important to review options with a protective packaging professional well versed in the pros and cons of both material forms. In the meantime, here are some basic protective packaging descriptions and guidelines to help you gauge options while adding to your packaging knowledge base.

Plastic-Based Packaging

Bubble or air-cushioning

These products feature rows or cells of “bubbles” with trapped air locked between layers of low-, linear-low density or co-extruded polyethylene film (with or without recycled content). Bubble protective packaging material provides shock and vibration protection, interleaving, surface protection, wrapping and void-filling functions.

The material is resilient and flexible, making it a viable protective packaging solution for virtually any product, ranging from delicate, lightweight objects such as ceramics and housewares to heavier, bulkier electronic components and glassware, including computers and office equipment. Bubble packaging with anti-static properties is frequently used to protect the latter.

There are many variables to consider when selecting the right bubble or air-cushioning product for your specific application. You need to consider the bubble cell size (typically, from 1/8- to ½-inch) and structural composition (monolayer film, coextrusion, lamination, etc.) to provide adequate product cushioning. Usually, larger bubble cells are used to protect bigger products, while smaller cells are used for smaller parts.

Within the past couple of years, bubble products that address environmental concerns have entered the marketplace. Some products feature pre-consumer waste content (industrial scrap), while other products combine up to 40% post- and pre-consumer waste.

In addition to content, size and structural concerns, packagers need to evaluate performance when comparing air-cushioning options. For example, how secure is the cell seal? Has the seal been compromised, and has the air leaked out before the package reaches its destination?

Inflatable bags/air pillows

Unlike bubble protective packaging, which is typically used to wrap and cushion components, bags or air pillows are used for blocking and bracing, cushioning or top and side void-fill, depending on the particular application.

The lightest weight void-fill option, they are typically created on demand at packing stations, via a stand-alone unit (versus bubble packaging, which is delivered to the plant in perforated rollstock) and then inserted into a box. Deflated, rolls of air-pillow film take up less than 1% of the inflated volume, allowing manufacturers to maximize truck and warehouse space. The bags or pillows tend to feature much larger air chambers than bubble packaging, although smaller, “hybrid” cells can also be made by purpose-built units.

This “systems” approach to creating inflatable bags is typically found in distribution center environments. Line operators reach up and tear off the appropriate number of pillows for whatever void-fill task they are executing. Designed to keep items securely in place, air pillows provide protection for a broad range of products.

Packagers can chose from a variety of materials, widths and perforation dimensions (usually every 6 to 12 inches), depending on application requirements. Bio- and oxo-degradable options also are available.

Foam products

There are a broad range of foam protective packaging products to suit a spectrum of needs. Foam structures typically are made from polypropylene or polyethylene and available in a wide variety of densities and thicknesses (ranging from 1/32-inch sheets to 4-inch planks).

Sometimes, these products are further converted (laminations) for added protection or to perform a specific function, but oftentimes, the basic structures are custom fabricated into their final structural form. Examples include foam that is die-cut, heat-sealed, welded, glued, saw-cut, split, skived, water jet cut, routed or drilled to precise specifications. Clean and non-abrasive, sheet or plank foam offers shock absorption, vibration dampening and cushioning for multiple applications, including case inserts, end caps, bottom/top cushioning, etc., for anything from electronics to household accessories.


Foamed-in-place polyurethane is molded real-time by mixing two liquid chemicals contained in a thin, low-density polyethylene bag. The mixture expands rapidly around the product being protected, creating a custom protective shell. This form of packaging is ideal for larger, heavier and irregularly shaped objects that are lower volume and require a high degree of packaging protection.

EPS packaging

Expanded polystyrene (EPS) protective packaging typically comes in the form of molded end caps, blocks, sheets or loose-fill void-fill commonly referred to as “peanuts.” Bio-based void-fill alternatives also entered the market in the 1990s. Manufacturers promote their light weight, lower cost and potential for reuse in helping to minimize scratching and breakage, while providing blocking and bracing benefits.


This packaging alternative may not be the first thing that comes to mind when reviewing protective packaging options, but mailers — specifically padded types — are used extensively to ship everything from books to parts. Plastic-based alternatives are typically made from polyethylene and sometimes include a bubble inner layer. These mailers are lightweight, waterproof and come in many sizes.

Paper-based Packaging

Honeycomb structures

Other than traditional corrugated shippers and partitions, hexagonal honeycomb structures are one of the most frequently used paper-based protective packaging forms. Made from 100% kraft paper (linerboard) and water-based adhesives, honeycomb offers excellent strength, superior cushioning and blocking/bracing functions for a wide range of protective packaging applications.

Honeycomb structures are available in sheets, edge and corner protectors, runners, blocks and pallets.

Users should determine if their honeycomb supplier has achieved Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certification for its paper sourcing. With more than 160 million acres certified across North America, the non-profit SFI certification program is one of the largest in the world, with a standard based on principles and measures that promote responsible environmental behavior and sound forest management, including measures to protect water quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, species at risk and forests of exceptional conservation value.

For those companies that prefer an entire paper-based profile, the SFI certification (via its procedures and audits) helps make sure that the content meets natural, renewable virgin and post-consumer recycled fiber standards. Most honeycomb alternatives also include a percentage of recycled content.

Crumpled paper

Crumpled paper has increased in popularity in the midst of a new, more environmentally sensitive era. Kraft paper padding is configured into various patterns to create void-fill, cushioning, wrapping and blocking and bracing functions. A variety of machine sizes are available to meet packaging work-cell environments. Versatile and effective, crumpled paper is used across markets ranging from retail to industrial.

Molded pulp

This is another protective category that is being reconsidered during the present environmental climate. Typically made from a combination of recycled newspapers and corrugated, the product can be molded into a variety of shapes to meet specific applications. Further supporting its environmental position is that it can be shipped in a compact nesting profile.


“All-paper” padded mailers typically imply that the material sandwiched in between the inner and outer paper layers is macerated (shredded) pieces of paper. Renewable and recyclable, these come in a variety of sizes and typically offer tear strips for easy access.

Other options

Single-face corrugated paper comes in rolls and is manufactured from recycled corrugated medium. It is mostly used to line rail cars, protect metal cylinders, wrap bottles and as a glass sheet separator. Items such as paper-based shipping tubes, corner protectors and the like are used for the protection needs of specialty applications.

Material Combinations

Occasionally, protective packaging solutions use both paper and plastic to create a custom solution, such as kraft paper mailers lined with bubble to create cushioning protection.

Another example of a protective packaging type that combines more than one material is insulated shippers. Used for niche applications such as medical products and seafood, insulated shippers can combine EPS foams, aluminum foil or metalized film, gel packs, bubble cushioning and more.

With so many protective packaging alternatives available today, it's important to take the time to evaluate solutions for your specific product and production situation. It used to be enough to just look at performance objectives and related costs. Now, the environmental profile of the product being used is also being factored into the decision-making process.

In addition, some protective packaging materials (such as foam products that are fabricated) lend themselves to closed-loop supply systems. You should talk to your supplier to see if there is a way to reclaim scrap and return it so that impact on landfills is minimized.

Whether you select a plastic, paper or combination-material protective product, the key is to make sure it does what it is meant to do — get your product into the customer's hands in the same pristine condition it was in when it left your production or distribution facility.

Josephine Fish is director of marketing with Pregis Corp., a provider of protective packaging solutions.

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