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Analysis: Is foam packaging bad for the environment?

Last Updated 20th April 2021
Posted In: Environment | Guides & Advice

Environmentally Sound Protection

Is foam packaging really bad for the environment?

With more and more scrutiny on the sustainability of packaging – and the UK government pledging to eliminate plastic waste by 2042 – more and more businesses are viewing eco-friendly packaging as a must have (both to protect the environment and win over a generation of more environmentally focused consumers).

Whilst for many companies this means switching to polystyrene alternatives such as paper void fill and corrugated inserts / fittings, many still see pliable plastic materials (including bubble wrap, for example) as the only option for protecting goods during transit. In fact, many are making the switch to foam packaging.

But is foam packaging bad for the environment? This guide aims to answer this question. It covers:

  • What is meant by foam packaging?
  • The case for using foam
  • The case against
  • Whether there are any alternatives

Please continue reading below for further details or use the table of contents to jump straight to your area of interest.

Quick Reference / Contents

01: Introduction

An explanation of this packaging material

It has been more than 5 years since New York joined 70 cities worldwide in banning the manufacturing, processing, and selling of Expanded Polystyrene Foam (EPS) and Polystyrene loose fill packaging.

The foam packaging ban, which was mainly put into place in order to force food service suppliers to use recyclable materials, meant that many everyday items such as take-away cups and plates could no longer be made from EPS.

Styrofoam packaging ban
One form of foam packaging - expanded polystyrene - has been banned in some cities

The ban was put into place in order to help New York City in its bid to become a greener city and reduce the amount of waste being sent to landfill.

However, this guide looks at a different form of foam packaging – that used as end caps, for box lining and other forms of transit protection.

What is meant by foam packaging?

So, what is meant by foam packaging?

Most modern foam materials tend to be manufactured from polyethylene, including the market leading options such as Stratocell, Ethafoam and Plastazote.

Although manufactured in differing ways, the result is a closed cell foam that provides excellent levels of protection., One key advantage, for example, is that foams of this type are effective at protecting their contents over multiple drops or impacts. This makes it much more effective than Polystyrene, which protects on the first impact only.

Besides this, foam packaging can be easily fabricated to create a range of packaging inserts and options.

Unlike EPS which tends to be moulded, foam packaging can be easily cut, shaped, and glued to form varying designs which can even provide a tailored level of protection.

The burning question remains however – is foam packaging bad for the environment?

Is foam packaging bad?
Foam can often be viewed as bad for the environment... but is that really the case?

02: The Case for Foam Packaging

Arguments in favour of using foam for protective packaging

Although little known, there are actually some strong arguments for using foam inserts if your business is looking to reduce its environmental impact.

These are as follows.

Recyclable

The vast majority of packaging foams, including the widely used Sealed Air Stratocell and Ethafoam, plus the Azote Plastazote ranges, are all recyclable.

Being manufactured from polyethylene, the material can be processed to be reused many times, minimising the environmental impact of the material.

The issue surrounding this – and part of the reason why foam can sometimes be perceived as bad for the environment – is the ease of recycling. Foam is not (currently) accepted in curb side recycling programmes, so would need to be taken to household recycling centres or specialist facilities. Many manufacturers – including Sealed Air – offer their own recycling programmes however (find out more here).

Prevents damage

Another point to consider when thinking about how environmentally friendly a material is, is to consider the job that it is doing. In the case of foam packaging, that is preventing other goods or materials becoming waste themselves.

For example., large consumer electronics such as TVs will be packed using foam end caps / inserts. This prevents the TV from being damaged in transit.

However, if the TV were to arrive damaged, what would this mean? Besides a costly return and an annoyed customer, there is a chance that the item would be sent to landfill. At best, there is a return journey (more emissions) and repair (more resources). All of this is bad for the environment and can be avoided using foam packaging.

Foam packaging products
The use of foam end caps and packaging can vastly reduce transit damage (which itself has an environmental impact)

Reduces packs size / emissions

Due to its high levels of performance, foam can actually help reduce environmental impact in a number of other ways.

Key amongst these is that through clever design and minimal material use, it allows for the outer packs (i.e. the single trip corrugated packaging) to be reduced in size.

Not only does this material saving help the environment (and costs to your business) but also allows for more items to be sent per consignment / vehicle load as it is more space efficient. This in turn lead to less emissions

Reuse

Another benefit of using foam is it the possibilities for reuse.

When used as part of a returnable transit packaging loop for example, foam can typically be used over many hundreds of journeys. Similarly, the foam insert in a protective case (although different from single trip foams such as Stratocell) will equally last for many years.

Protective case foam
Foam used for returnable packaging or case inserts can be used over many trips / years

Recycled / eco versions available

Finally, with mounting pressure from the media and consumers alike, foam manufacturers have begun to look at ways of making their materials eco-friendlier.

As a result, it is now possible to foams made mostly of recycled materials, such as Stratocell R and Ethafoam HRC.

03: The Case Against Foam Packaging

Arguments against foam being environmentally friendly

Even though there are strong arguments that foam can actually help the sustainability of a business’ packaging, there are equally many who voice concern about the environmental impact of the material.

In order to provide a balanced view, here are the typical concerns of those considering using foam packaging.

Plastic based

It is an inescapable fact that the vast majority of foams are manufactured using plastics.

Being produced from polyethylene, this means the material is petroleum / fossil fuel based. As such, it plays a small part in the environmental impact caused by extraction and refining of oil-based products.

Non-biodegradable

Another issue with foams being manufactured from plastic is that they are non-biodegradable.

Whilst this is not an issue on its own (it would be mitigated by a robust recycling programme), it does mean that any foam packaging that makes its way into landfill will remain there for many hundreds of years. There is also the obvious concern of plastic microparticles being generated as the material breaks down.

foam packaging landfill
Foam packaging will often be sent to landfill, for the simple fact it is difficult to recycle

Hard (for consumers) to recycle

The above point – of foam not being biodegradable – is compounded by recycling not currently being easy for consumers.

It involves making a trip to specialist recycling centre or facility, instead of simply placing it in curb side recycling. This means that a certain proportion of consumers will put any foam packaging they receive straight into their waste bins (which ultimately go to landfill).

Alternatives available

Another key argument against foam packaging is that there are a number of other alternatives now available.

This includes paper and cardboard based options, such as void fill and corrugated cardboard fittings / inserts, both of which are much more easily recycled and completely biodegradable.

Other options include Corrispring (a cardboard mechanism for replicating the “cushioning” provided by foam), as well as Korrvu, which uses a plastic film to retain or suspend items within the outer pack. Whilst this uses some plastic, the amount is considerably reduced.

korrvu suspension packaging
Korrvu is a form of packaging that, whilst still using some plastic, is much easier for end users to recycle

04: Should Your Business use Foam Packaging?

Deciding on whether your business should use foam packaging

The short answer is… it depends!

For many applications, the costs (both monetary and environmental) of goods becoming damaged in transit, will far outweigh the impacts of using well optimised, material efficient foam packaging / inserts.

It is also important to look at the bigger picture too.

Whilst it may be possible to switch to an alternative material for your void fill or cushioning requirements, most of these alternatives will result in larger pack sizes, less efficient transit, and more emissions overall.

And, with the range of recycled foams improving all the time, there are eco friendly foam options that you should seriously consider.

Saying that, for lower value or more robust goods (i.e. that do not need such specialist levels of protection) switching to corrugated cardboard dividers, inserts and fittings should be seen as a viable option.

This obviously means your packs will be much more easily recycled (a positive for the end user) and will most likely be viewed as a positive step by your customers.

In Summary

Is foam packaging bad for the environment?

Hopefully, this guide has shown that rather than foam packaging being bad for the environment, in the right circumstances the opposite can be true.

However, careful consideration must be given to the application, intended use, product, and many other factors to ascertain whether foam packaging is right for your business.

Need help in deciding?

Simply get in touch with a member of the team at GWP who will be happy to offer truly impartial advice (GWP supply both foam packaging and their alternatives) on the best option for you.

Further Reading...

About the Author

Ian Heskins

Ian Heskins

Business Development Director | GWP Group

Ian is one of the founding Directors of GWP, using his broad knowledge acquired over more than 30 years to oversee new business strategy [Read full bio…]

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