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Is using foam packaging bad for the environment?

Ian Heskins: Last Updated 29th April 2024
Posted In: Environment | Guides and Advice
https://www.gwp.co.uk/author/Ian-Heskins/ xx 31628

Environmentally sound protection

Is foam packaging really that bad for the environment?

With more and more scrutiny on the sustainability of the packaging your business uses – and the UK government pledging to eliminate plastic waste by 2042 – more and more companies are viewing eco-friendly packaging as a must-have. There is a strong business (and moral) case to protect the environment while also aiming to win over a generation of more environmentally focused consumers.

Whilst for many companies, this means switching to polystyrene alternatives such as paper void fill, wood foams and even corrugated inserts, many still see pliable plastic materials (including bubble wrap, for example) as the only option for protecting goods during transit. 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.

Contents

01: Introduction

An explanation of this packaging material

It has been more than five 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, designed primarily to force food service suppliers to use recyclable materials, meant that many everyday items, such as takeaway 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 introduction of the ban aimed to help New York City in its bid to become a greener city and reduce the amount of waste going to landfills.

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

What is meant by foam packaging?

So, what is meant by foam packaging?

Most modern foam materials use polyethylene in their manufacture, including market-leading options such as Stratocell, Ethafoam and Plastazote.

Although manufactured in different 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 effectively protect their contents over multiple drops or impacts. This behaviour makes it much more effective than Polystyrene, which protects on the first impact only.

Besides this, it is relatively easy to fabricate foam packaging 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, often providing 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?

The case for foam packaging

Arguments in favour of using foam for protective packaging

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

Recyclable

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

Manufactured from polyethylene, the material can be re-processed and reused many times, minimising the environmental impact of the material.

The issue surrounding this – and part of the reason why many perceive foam as bad for the environment – is the difficulty of recycling. Foam is not (currently) accepted in kerbside recycling programmes. End users must take it to household recycling centres or specialist facilities. Many manufacturers, including Sealed Air, offer their own recycling programmes, however.

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, this is preventing other goods or materials from becoming waste themselves.

For example., large consumer electronics such as TVs will be packed using foam end caps and inserts. These foam elements prevent 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 manufacturer or supplier sends the item to landfill. At best, there is a return journey (more emissions) and repair (more resources). All of this is bad for the environment and is avoidable by 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 pack sizes and emissions

Due to its high-performance levels, foam can help reduce environmental impact in several other ways.

Key amongst these is that clever design and minimal material use allow packaging designers to reduce the size of the outer packs (i.e. the single trip corrugated packaging).

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

Reuse

Another benefit of using foam is the possibility of reuse.

When used as part of a returnable transit packaging loop, for example, businesses can typically use foam 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 and eco-friendly grades

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

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

Besides this, new developments such as Fibrease wood foam packaging offer many benefits of polymer-based foams but use cellulose fibres. End users can easily recycle these foams.

The case against foam packaging

Arguments against foam being environmentally friendly

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

To provide a balanced view, here are the typical concerns of those considering foam packaging.

Plastic based

It is an inescapable fact that the vast majority of foams are polymer-based (plastic).

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

However, this is slowly beginning to change, with several wood foam packaging materials (such as Fibrease) becoming commercially available.

Non-biodegradable

Another issue with plastic-based foams is that they are non-biodegradable.

Whilst this is not an issue on its own (a robust recycling programme would mitigate it), 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 generating plastic microparticles 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

Difficult for consumers to recycle

The fact foam is not biodegradable is compounded by recycling not currently being easy for consumers.

It involves going to a specialist recycling centre or facility instead of simply placing it in kerbside recycling. This additional effort 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 several other alternatives now available.

These include paper and cardboard-based options, such as void fill and corrugated cardboard fittings, which are much more easily recycled and completely biodegradable.

Other options include Corrispring (a cardboard mechanism for replicating the “cushioning” provided by foam) and 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.

These options are, of course, in addition to the range of bio-based foams (such as wood foam) that are becoming available.

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

Should your business use foam packaging?

Deciding on whether your business should use foam packaging

The short answer is that it depends!

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

It is also essential to look at the bigger picture.

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

And, with the range of recycled foams fast improving, there are sustainable foam options that you should seriously consider.

However, 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 is now a viable option.

Summary

Is foam packaging bad for the environment?

Foam packaging can be bad. Besides polluting the ocean and natural environments, it can break down to create microplastics. It also uses finite, fossil-based resources. However, it can be essential in protecting products during transit, is often reusable, and can minimise CO2 emissions through more efficient shipping. As such, foam packaging is often the most suitable material for specific applications.

In the right circumstances foam packaging, rather than being bad for the environment, can actually be more sustainable than some of the alternatives.

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

As suppliers of all types of foams and their alternatives, our team of experts at GWP look beyond the simple question of “Is foam packaging bad?” but instead recommend the most sustainable and commercially viable option for your specific application.

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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