Commercial and environmental analysis
Is sustainable foam packaging now a viable option?
If your business uses polymer-based foams for shipping or presenting your products, you are increasingly likely to be interested in sustainable foam packaging options.
There are several sustainable foam packaging materials now available. Options include foams such as Stratocell R with high levels of recycled content, alongside wood-based foams such as Fibrease. Sustainable foam packaging can help reduce plastic pollution and enable easier recycling. But, certain materials may have compromises in terms of performance and appearance/finishes.
This guide aims to take a holistic view of the sustainable foam packaging options currently available to your business. GWP have extensive experience in converting these materials (as well as traditional plastic-based foams), allowing us to provide a balanced assessment of the options.
The guide includes:
- What sustainability means in the context of packaging.
- The sustainable foam materials currently available.
- Applications for sustainable foam packaging.
The challenge of sustainable packaging
Sustainability is one of the biggest challenges facing not only the packaging industry but businesses of all sizes and in virtually all market sectors.
With growing awareness of the harm human activity is causing the planet and climate, more and more consumers demand that brands and businesses provide sustainable products and services. This expectation extends to the packaging that your company uses.
Foam packaging and sustainability
Sustainable foam packaging has long been a desire of many brands, manufacturers and packaging buyers.
Traditional foams use virgin plastics in their production and are inherently difficult to recycle. This is particularly true of one of the worst offenders, Expanded Polystyrene (EPS, or Styrofoam). Many businesses have long sought to find viable polystyrene alternatives.
The launch of the UK Plastic Packaging Tax, which levies additional charges on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content, has also accelerated the need for more eco-friendly options.
In essence, there has been a considerable demand for options that allow businesses to move away from traditional foam packaging materials.
Sustainable foam options
What are the current sustainable foam packaging options?
So, with a growing clamour amongst consumers and businesses, material producers have responded by developing a range of more sustainable foam packaging options.
The currently available sustainable foam packaging options are:
- Fibrease wood foam.
- Papira cellulose foam.
- Stratocell R.
- Ethafoam HRC.
Fibrease wood foam
Foam packaging made from trees
Stora Enso manufactures Fibrease wood foam. Using Nordic wood fibres, it is a soft material with memory-foam like behavior. Besides providing these cushioning and dampening properties, it is also possible to use it for insulation (e.g. in temperature-controlled packaging applications).
Arguably, its most significant advantage, however, is that it is recyclable in kerbside bins alongside the outer corrugated box it is used within. This ease of recycling wood foam packaging is a big plus for consumers and eliminates more difficult-to-recycle materials.
There are a couple of points to consider if looking to switch to Fibrease, however. Firstly, it may provide a lower level of cushioning protection than plastic-based foams. This performance may make it unsuitable for items that have the potential for damage in transit.
Secondly, it can also generate a small amount of dust over time, which can make it unsuitable for some electronics or parts/components that this could damage.
Overall, however, Fibrease is arguably the most sustainable foam packaging material currently available.
Papira cellulose foam
Enhanced protection during transit/handling
Still in development (and another product of Stora Enso), Papira is similar to Fibrease but with the added benefit that it is also biodegradable. It uses cellulose fibres, resulting in a lightweight shock-absorbent packaging foam. All raw material is also from sustainable sources.
As the material is still in development, it is difficult to comment on its strengths and weaknesses. Still, it promises to be another step forward regarding eco-friendly foams.
Papira is expected to be commercially available in 2025.
Foam with recycled content
Stratocell R is closed-cell polyethylene foam. While this is polymer (plastic) based, it contains at least 65% recycled content.
Besides being exempt from the plastic packaging tax, another crucial benefit is that it provides excellent cushioning protection. This performance makes Stratocell perfect for producing end caps or foam lining to protect electronics, tools, equipment, consumer goods or any fragile or expensive items.
This high performance also means you can use less material, reducing pack sizes and, in turn, minimising transport requirements and emissions.
However, the material is still plastic. And whilst Polyethylene is recyclable, Stratocell is not currently collected in kerbside recycling boxes. Its perception amongst consumers can also be negative (particularly if they are unaware that it contains recycled content).
High and max recycled content
Ethafoam HRC (high recycled content) and MRC (max recycled content) contain at least 65% and 100% recycled content, respectively.
Similar to Straocell R, it provides excellent performance in transit packaging applications. The sustainability benefits it allows your business to achieve – particularly in terms of material reduction, pack size reduction (minimising emissions) and preventing transit damage – can be significant.
However, the same issues that apply to Stratcell R also apply to Ethafoam HRC/MRC. Namely, it is difficult for consumers to recycle, and many see plastic as inherently unsustainable.
Ecozote recycled Plastazote
It is ideal for long-term (i.e. reusable) storage and transport of high-value or fragile tools, products and equipment. In fact, Ecozote provides the highest level of protection of any sustainable foam packaging option. It is even possible to calculate the precise amount of foam required to protect specific products or items of equipment.
The issues associated with other recycled foam packaging – that it is difficult to recycle and has a poor reputation – apply here, too, but less so. As Plastazote is generally used over multiple trips/uses, the reusability minimises the environmental impact.
Ecozote is more expensive than Stratocell or Ethafoam in the short term. Still, over time, it becomes more cost-effective due to its reusability. The only other consideration is that Ecozote is not currently available in the same range of colours and densities/grades as non-recycled Plastazote.
Sustainable foam packaging applications
Opportunities for switching to sustainable foam packaging
So, with more sustainable foam materials available, are there applications where it would make sense for your business to change? And if so, which foam should you use for a specific type of packaging?
Presentation and gift box foam
If your brand uses gift packs or presentation boxes for your products – such as for cosmetics, homeware, jewellery or other luxury products – your primary consideration is likely to be aesthetics.
As such, switching to a wood-based foam such as Fibrease can differentiate you from your competitors.
This benefit is particularly important when positioning your brand as a natural, organic or sustainable business.
Besides the ease of recycling (in kerbside collections for cardboard), Fibrease also offers enough longevity to be suited to value-added packaging your customers retain for longer-term storage.
Sustainable foam packaging for eCommerce
The type of products that your business sells online determines the best kind of sustainable foam packaging for your packaging.
For gift-type products (cosmetics, jewellery, etc.), a wood foam insert can be ideal. For products that are not particularly fragile, foam-lined boxes using Fibrease are also a great option.
If, however, you are shipping higher-value items or those prone to damage, then the recycled foams are a better choice. Stratocell R and Ethfoam HRC are both well suited to shipping electronics such as phones, TVs, laptops, etc., as well as items such as glass, framed artwork and so on.
Transit and industrial packaging
For industrial packaging applications, Stratcell or Ethfoam, even in recycled formats, provide suitable protection for shipping parts, assemblies and finished products/equipment.
Used to create end caps, oversized cuffs and collars, foam dunnage or even custom pallet collars, recycled foams can help to improve the sustainability of your transit packaging.
High-performance engineered foam
Suppose you are using a protective case to store or transport your equipment. In that case, Ecozote is your only real option in terms of sustainable foam options.
Perfect for enhancing waterproof cases, carry cases, aluminium containers and even sample cases for salespeople, Ecozote provides excellent cushioning protection. It is possible to cut the recesses to the precise shape of your equipment, further aiding protection whilst also making retrieving tools or parts much easier.
Should your business switch to sustainable foam packaging?
We have finally reached a point where there are several viable, sustainable foam packaging materials available.
However, the new materials can display subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences from their predecessors. As such, it is essential to assess all factors when considering switching to a new foam. Protection, costs, aesthetics, ease of recycling and how sustainable a material are all important points that must be considered.
With over 30 years of experience in foam conversion, including being at the forefront of new materials available, GWP can provide you with honest, impartial advice on whether switching would make sense for your business and how to handle this process.
If you would like help or advice on switching to sustainable foam packaging, please do not hesitate to get in touch.