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Eco-friendly foam packaging – is now the time to switch?

Richard Coombes: Last Updated 16th February 2024
Posted In: Environment | Guides and Advice
https://www.gwp.co.uk/author/Richard-Coombes/ xx 31623

Environmentally friendly packaging

Assessing the pros and cons of eco-friendly foam packaging

If you use any form of shipping protection at your business, it may seem obvious to use eco-friendly foam packaging. But is now the time to switch?

Eco-friendly foam packaging includes recycled and recyclable materials. It can help reduce plastic pollution, allow easier recycling for end users, and improve a business’ brand perception. However, some eco-friendly foams do not provide the same degree of transit protection, may still be difficult to recycle, or may be commercially unviable.

With over 30 years of experience converting foam materials of all types, our experts at GWP are ideally placed to analyse and assess the costs and benefits of switching to eco-friendly foam packaging.

As such, this guide details:

  • The advantages of switching to eco-friendly foam packaging.
  • Eco-friendly foam limitations.
  • Other alternatives you may wish to consider.

Contents

Introduction

The evolution of eco-friendly foam packaging

Many people will cite various factors that have led to the development of eco-friendly foam packaging material over the last three to five years. Arguably, however, the two that have had the most impact are increased consumer demand and the Plastic Packaging Tax.

Starting with the former, as many as one in five consumers have indicated that they would not continue buying from a retailer or online seller that did not use sustainable packaging. Similar numbers of buyers for industrial manufacturers are demanding the same from their packaging suppliers, too.

Eco-friendly foam packaging
There has been a concerted effort by suppliers and users of packaging to move towards more eco-friendly foam

The Plastic Packaging Tax, introduced in April 2022, also accelerated the need for eco-friendly foams. The new tax effectively ensured that any plastic packaging materials (including foam) with less than 30% recycled content were subject to additional charges.

Both these factors, in tandem, have driven material producers and packaging manufacturers to find more sustainable foam packaging and alternative options.

Types of eco-friendly foams

There are effectively two strategies that foam material manufacturers have taken to become more environmentally friendly – recycled and recyclable foam packaging.

Recycled foam packaging, whilst still polymer-based, uses varying amounts of recycled material. For example, Stratocell R and Ethafoam HRC contain approximately 65% recycled material. Ethafoam MRC uses only recycled plastic. A recycled Plastazote, Ecozote, is also available.

Only one recyclable foam is currently available commercially, the wood-based Fibrease by Stora Enso. UK councils accept this material in kerbside collections alongside paper and cardboard. It is to be joined by Papira, which is also fully biodegradable, in 2025.

This guide on sustainable foam packaging provides further details of each option.

Advantages of eco-friendly foam

Why your business should consider switching to eco-friendly foam packaging

Put simply, the benefits of sustainable foam packaging are:

  • Reduction in plastic pollution.
  • Easier recycling for end users.
  • Improved brand perception.
  • Reduction in pack sizes (reducing emissions).
  • Maintains transit protection.

Reduction in plastic pollution

Perhaps the most significant advantage of eco-friendly foams is that they help to reduce plastic pollution.

Wood-based foams do this using renewable and (mostly) biodegradable materials. In contrast, foams using recycled content divert this material from potentially going to landfills.

Besides the obvious benefit this has in terms of minimising environmental impact, it can be a significant factor in improving the sustainability of your overall business.

One point to consider, however, is that plastic-based foams, even if using recycled content, have the potential to become pollution (particularly as some can be difficult to recycle).

Plastic pollution
Eco friendly foams can help to minimise plastic pollution

Easier recycling for end users

Wood foams, in particular, allow for much easier recycling by end users (i.e. your customers).

In fact, end users can place foam packaging manufactured using cellulose fibres straight into kerbside recycling bins along with paper and cardboard.

This benefit not only drastically increases recycling rates, but also reduces friction for your customers. Effectively, it makes their life easier.

This ease of recycling isn’t the case for recycled plastic foams, which still require specialist facilities.

Improved brand perception

From a commercial point of view, the perception that customers (and potential customers) have of your business can improve significantly if your company uses eco-friendly foam packaging.

Consumer perception is particularly important if you are positioning your brand or products as the sustainable, natural or organic option within your market sector.

As well as retaining customers, recycled or plastic-free packaging packaging can help you win market share, too.

Maintains transit protection

However, nothing can destroy your brand perception and customer relationships more quickly than having orders arrive damaged.

As such, it is vital to consider whether any eco-foam packaging you use provides the performance required to protect your products during transit.

Whilst wood and cellulose foams offer different properties to traditional foams, the recycled foams provide equivalent protection to the non-recycled alternatives. This performance makes them ideal for high-value items such as TVs, laptops and other consumer electronics.

Eco friendly eCommerce packaging
Many of the eco-friendly foams provide excellent transit protection

Reduction in pack sizes (reducing emissions)

Similarly to transit protection, it is also crucial to consider the impact of your foam packaging on the overall packaging.

If material performance is less than traditional polymer-based foams, packaging designers may add more foam material to compensate. Larger outer packs are then required to accommodate the extra foam, which leads to less efficient transport and higher emissions. As a result, your packaging can have a higher carbon footprint overall than if it used regular foam.

Fortunately, the recycled foam options provide suitable performance for this to not be an issue if you switch to one of these options.

Disadvantages of eco-friendly foam packaging

Where you must take caution before switching to eco-friendly foam

There are applications where it may simply not make sense to switch to alternative materials for your packaging. There are several disadvantages of eco-friendly foam packaging in its current form, including:

  • It can be more costly.
  • Lower performance levels.
  • Fewer colours, grades and finish options.
  • Difficulty in recycling.

Cost of eco-friendly foam packaging

As with many environmentally friendly products (not just packaging), you may have to pay a premium to use environmentally friendly foam.

Due to the additional complexities in manufacturing, recycled foams are frequently more costly than the equivalent grades using virgin plastic. These increased costs can often make switching a difficult decision commercially.

The good news is that as these newer materials become more established, the cost difference is narrowing rapidly. However, with the economic uncertainty and rising costs elsewhere, you must be sure that your business can bear potentially higher costs in the short term.

Lower performance levels

Recycled plastic foams such as Stratocell R and Ethafoam HRC offer performance comparable with their non-recycled counterparts. The same is also true of Ecozote recycled Plastazote.

However, suppose you are considering switching to a wood-based foam. In that case, you must be aware of the differences in cushioning performance.

Whilst your packaging designer can provide guidance on making the switch, there are some applications where doing so would be a false economy. You must consider that an increase in transit damage, as well as annoying customers, can also have a more significant adverse environmental impact than sticking with your existing packaging.

Eco foam colours, grades and finish options

Arguably the biggest compromise with eco-friendly foam packaging, at least currently, is the more narrow choice of grades, densities, colours and finishes available.

Generally, the aesthetic appearance of recycled foam is poorer than those made with virgin materials. Whilst this may not be of concern for transit packaging, for applications such as retail presentation and gift box foam for premium products, this may be negative for your customers.

This compromise is coupled with much less choice in terms of colours, with less branding potential as a result. Added together, it can make switching to eco-friendly foam a tougher decision for manufacturers of very high-end products.

A protective case with a collection of cosmetics bottles
Currently, eco-friendly foams offer fewer options in terms of colours, grades and finishes.

Difficulty in recycling

Although they contain recycled material, plastic foams remain challenging to recycle. And until local authorities accept them in kerbside recycling schemes, this is likely to remain the case for your customers. Effectively, the recycled material still eventually ends up in landfills.

A person recycling waste packaging
Many eco-friendly foams can still be difficult to recycle

Alternatives to eco-friendly foam

Are there any other sustainable packaging options?

Of course, if you want to make your packaging more environmentally friendly, it is essential to consider other materials and options beyond foam.

There are several eco-friendly foam alternatives, including:

  • Standard packaging foam.
  • Korrvu.
  • Corrugated fittings.
  • Paper void fill.

Standard packaging foam

There are times when the most critical aspect of your packaging is the protection it provides. For particularly expensive items, those which are very fragile or those which are mission critical (i.e. which simply cannot become damaged), using the best foam packaging is likely your best option.

Even when framing this in terms of sustainability, a high percentage of goods damaged in transit can quickly outweigh any gains you make using eco-friendly foam packaging.

The environmental impact of returning the damaged goods, sending a replacement and reworking (or worse – scrapping) the broken items can be more significant than your plastic packaging.

As such, using foam packaging, including Stratcell, Ethafoam and Plastazote, is often your best option.

Korrvu

Another alternative to foam packaging is Korrvu. Korrvu is a corrugated fitting with a plastic film that holds goods in place during shipping.

Korrvu offers good levels of protection in transit and is not specific to a particular product (meaning you can use it across multiple SKUs.). End users can also put the entire pack – including the film – into kerbside recycling bins (the plastic element is separated similarly to tapes when being recycled).

However, Korrvu does still use plastic material, which can potentially become waste after use.

Korrvu
Although Korrvu uses some plastic, the amount is vastly reduced when compared with foams.

Corrugated fittings

Corrugated cardboard fittings, along with similar options such as divider sets and layer pads, can protect products during transit.

The key advantage is that cardboard is the most recycled packaging material in the UK, accepted by all kerbside collections for recycling. It is also biodegradable.

Specialist cradles can be tailored to a specific product and provide a surprisingly high level of protection. However, this is still below the levels of performance offered by foam.

Paper void fill

Finally, if you simply need to fill a void to stop items moving during transit, paper void fill may be an option.

It is easily recycled, biodegradable, often made using recycled material, and uses renewable resources (paper/wood).

However, it provides little cushioning protection, making it unsuitable for fragile or expensive items. If you are using a lot of void fill, it may also suggest you need to consider the size of the boxes you are using. Reducing your outer pack sizes could potentially provide a significant environmental benefit.

Paper void fill
Paper void fill can be a suitable option if the products being shipped vary in size / quantity etc.

Summary

Is eco-friendly foam right for your business?

There are many compelling arguments for switching to more environmentally friendly materials. Minimising environmental impact, helping customers to recycle your packaging and improving your brand perception are goals that all businesses should strive for.

But, some foam options could be less environmentally friendly sound, particularly if they lead to increased damage in transit.

Having been converting standard foams for more than 30 years and being amongst the early adopters of sustainable materials, at GWP we are perfectly placed to advise on the best option for your specific application.

So, if you are seriously considering switching to eco-friendly foam packaging but could do with some help or advice, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Further Reading...

About the Author

Richard Coombes

Richard Coombes

General Manager | GWP Protective

Having originally joined GWP Protective back in 2004, working on the factory floor, Richard now heads up the business as General Manager. [Read full bio…]

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