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Plastazote® foam – what is it and should you be using it?

Richard Coombes: Last Updated 16th February 2024
Posted In: Guides and Advice | Transit Protection xx 31623

An Explanation of What Plastazote® Is

Plus how it can have benefits for your packaging and supply chain

You may have heard the term “Plastazote® foam” before. You may not.

You may be aware of the benefits of foam packaging, and how it can cushion your products or equipment from knocks, impact and vibration in transit. Or you may not.

One thing you will almost certainly be aware of is the issues your business could face from consistently supplying damaged products or parts to your customer, or having equipment arrived on site damaged as unusable.

And if not, you really should.

Although you may not know it, Plastazote® is one of the most commonly used packaging foams

The costs to your business can be significant. Returned products, written off stock, unproductive staff, project delays, upset customers, poor brand perception and more can all result from transit damage.

So are foam inserts the answer? And if so, what is Plastazote®, and should you be using it for your protective packaging?

Quick Reference / Contents

01: What is Plastazote®?

Industry standard closed cell foam

Plastazote® is actually a brand name for a specific type of foam, although it has quickly become the industry standard for high-performance foam packaging.

Manufactured by Zotefoams®, and part of a larger range of foams (the “AZOTE® family”), it is effectively a closed cell, cross-linked foam that offers a wealth of benefits and can be easily converted and fabricated into foam packaging.

The foam itself is made up of a large number of nitrogen cells that are held within a polyethylene material.

Plastazote inserts
Manufactured by Zotefoams®, Plastazote® is widely used in the creation of high performance foam inserts

It is termed as “closed cell foam” as these nitrogen cells are not open / connected like a sponge. This also means that gases and liquids are not easily absorbed into the material.

In fact, this is one of many benefits of the material.

It is light in weight, is completely odourless, as it doesn’t absorb water is buoyant, it is non-toxic and being made of polyethylene it has exceptional chemical resistance to most oils, solvents, acids and alkalis.

Besides this, it is weatherproof, has a high level of ultraviolet stability, is durable, can be washed and disinfected and wiped clean relatively easily.

However, arguably its most important property is its ability to recover from repeated impacts being highly energy absorbent (which also makes it a good thermal insulator).In effect, each cell acts like a balloon, enabling the foam to bounce back to its original shape.

This is what makes it so suitable for foam inserts for cases and foam packaging in general.

02: How is it manufactured?

Manufacturing process for Plastazote® foam

Whilst the material itself is manufactured in a process whereby nitrogen is “blown” into the polyethylene before expanding, perhaps of more interest is the foam conversion processes that this material allows for.

Plastazote® foam can be easily shaped and cut. It can be routed cleanly using CNC machinery, as well as being easy to spilt, saw, die cut, shaped using water jet equipment, butt welded and even heat laminated.

As such, the material can also be bonded to other materials including fabrics, wood, plastics and metals (making it ideal to fix into cases as inserts).

Manufacturer of Plastazote
Plastazote can be "converted" into case inserts and packaging using CNC, waterjet, die cutting and other processes

Finally, the cross-linked nature of the foam also means it is easy to mould the material at low temperatures, thermoforming either by compression or vacuum moulding. As polyethylene has a low softening temperature, the foam is easy to form without the need for excessive heat.

All of this means that there are numerous ways to create incredibly detailed profiles, allowing fragile or high value items to have bespoke levels of protection engineered into the foam.

This can actually be taken a step further, with a little known (or used) piece of software allowing for exact levels of protection to be created based on theoretical compression testing and real life drop test data.

This in effect can completely eliminate transit damage, and is why Plastazote® is the material of choice for high protection packaging applications.

03: Plastazote® Key Benefits

Summary of advantages of using this foam material

The list of benefits associated with Plastazote® is actually incredibly vast and varied. However, here is a summary of the key features that make Plastazote® such a versatile packaging material

  • Lightweight & durable
  • Good impact absorbing properties
  • Good surface protection characteristics
  • Consistent with regular cell size
  • Wide range of densities and colours
  • Water repellent and buoyant
  • Excellent chemical resistance
  • Good thermal insulation
  • Range of high-performance options
  • Non-toxic & safe for handling
  • Easy to work & shape
  • Non-staining
  • Extremely low odour

04: Applications for Plastazote®

Main uses for closed cell foams

It is all very well highlighting how versatile and high performance a material is, but unless this has applications in the real world that provide tangible benefits for your business, it is pretty meaningless.

Fortunately, Plastazote® is popular for more than just its credentials, being widely used in a huge range of applications, even just within the packaging and transit markets.

So, if your business uses any of the following forms of packaging or handling products in your day to day operations, you could make serious improvements through the utilisation of Plastazote®.

  • Case Inserts
  • Tool Control
  • Cushion packaging
  • Tote inserts / pads / fitments
  • Cradles / dunnage / line-side
  • Electronics Packaging
  • Military Packaging / Explosives
  • Medical Packaging
  • Retail packaging
  • Archival Packaging

Please continue reading for further information on each of these applications, and how the use of Plastazote® can drive efficiencies, cost savings and minimise damage.

05: Protective Case Foam Inserts

Allowing for precise levels of protection

Perhaps the most widespread use of Plastazote® (at least within the packaging market) is that of foam inserts for cases.

This is for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as mentioned above, Plastazote® can be manufactured to provide specific cushioning performance from shock, impact and general mishandling. This means that, when coupled with a suitable protective case, high-value products, tools, equipment or components can be given the highest level of transit protection.

Protective case plastazote inserts
Plastazote® makes the perfect protective case inserts as it can be engineered to have specific levels of protection

Besides this, the ability to create detailed recesses and profiles within the foam allows for items with them in case to be held in place during transit.

This not only keeps them organised, but also ensures that they do not damage each other through colliding when being moved.

Finally, with the foam being low odour and available in a range of colours ensures it is useful for presentation and branding purposes too.

As a result, Plastazote® is used in a wide range of presentation and sample cases to enhance their aesthetic appeal during important sales pitches and presentations.

06: Shadowfoam / Tool Control Inserts

Improve organisation and prevent equipment loss

Another common use for Plastazote® is that of tool control.

In fact, this is critical for a number of industries such as aerospace, medical and even automotive.

Through lamination of different coloured, contrasting foams, and then creating recesses for tools to be placed within, this “shadow foam” quickly and clearly highlights whether a tool has been put back in the case.

Although initially developed to save lives (e.g. ensuring tools were not left within aircraft engines – or even medical patients’ bodies), there are a number of benefits for other applications too.

Leaving tools on site (effectively losing them) can cost companies thousands each year. It can also result in poor productivity if field engineers turn up on site without the correct tools or equipment.

Tool control foam quickly highlights if a tool is missing, allowing appropriate action to be taken.

Plastazote tool control
Similar to case inserts, Plastazote® is also used to create tool control "shadow-boards"

07: Cushion Packaging

High performance protection

Similarly to case inserts, Plastazote® is widely used for what is termed “cushion packaging”.

As the foam can either be moulded or machined to exact shapes, it can hold items in place (preventing movement during transit) whilst also absorbing any vibration or impact energies.

Besides this, there are many grades which offer a soft surface, which in turn can protect the surfaces of the products transported within the foam (for example highly polished or painted parts / components).

08: Foam Dunnage

Inserts, pads and fitments for totes (dunnage)

Returnable packaging is another area where Plastazote® use is surprisingly widespread.

It is usually used for two reasons in such applications.

Firstly, the foam can be manufactured so that it safely holds parts, components or even fished products in place inside the outer tote. Whilst not normally fully encompassing the part as with case inserts, it nonetheless stops the items moving during transit and preventing them damaging each other.

Secondly, by separating the items, and isolating them from the inside walls of the containers (and each other), any specialist surfaces (again polished or painted) are protected.

The durability of the Plastazote® material also ties in with the “multi-use” requirements of the returnable packaging.

Plastazote foam dunnage
Plastazote® foam can also be used to create dividers, inserts and other dunnage for supply chain totes and containers

09: Line Side Packaging

Cradles and dunnage for handling operations

Plastazote® is not just suitable for your supply chain packaging, but also for your in-plant handling and line-side packaging too. This is particularly popular in automotive industries

Effectively working in the same was as multi-trip packaging, the Plastazote® cradles or dividers (often referred to as foam dunnage) will protect items being moved around your factory or production facility, both from mishandling and also surface scratches and scuffs etc.

Another benefit is that by separating the parts or components, assembly or picking times can actually be improved as operatives can easily retrieve the items from the tote, and it is also much easier to judge the amount of stock left in a particular container.

10: Electronics Packaging

Anti-static / ESD safe foam grades

If you are manufacturing, handling or shipping static sensitive devices (microchips, circuit boards or even finished products which incorporate electronics of some form), these can be susceptible to what is known as ESD (electrostatic discharge).

This atmospheric static can irreparably damage these items during storage and transit. However, there are grades of Plastazote® that can conduct or dissipate these charges, effectively protecting the items within.

As such, Plastazote® is widely used for electronics packaging.

11: Military Packaging

Foam approved for munitions / explosives packaging

There is a numerous criteria for military packaging. And whilst many of these involve the use of Plastazote® for protecting sensitive items (think communication gear, weaponry, specialist devices etc.) there are specific applications too.

For example, there are grades of Plastazote® that are approved for explosives and munitions, as well as flame retardant grades. These are manufactured and tested to the relevant defence standards (similarly to the waterproof cases such as Peli and SKB).

11: Medical Packaging

Plus other healthcare applications

There are numerous uses for Plastazote® in medical markets and applications.

For example, specific grades can tolerate irradiation sterilisation, whilst others can also withstand heat sterilisation.

This makes them widely used for the transportation of implants, as well as surgical instruments and even mobile medical devices (which may also require static protection too).

medical foam packaging
Plastazote® is commonly used for medical applications, such as protecting specialist devices and equipment

12: Archive Packaging

Safe long-term storage

Finally, because of the purity, stability and inert nature of Plastazote®, it is also widely used for archival storage.

With added properties of low odour, low VOC, not supporting microbial growth and even being non-staining, Plastazote® can be successfully used for storage and conservation of artefacts, works of art and other historical or antique items.

13: Other Uses

Even more uses for Plastazote®

Whilst this article covers the use of Plastazote® for packaging and storage applications, the material is so versatile that it is used numerous other applications.

These include use in sports equipment (padding for equipment, mats etc.), artificial limbs, insoles for shoes, gaskets and seals for industrial applications, construction applications and even for set designs and props in live performances.

It is this versatility that makes Plastazote® foam so popular.

In Summary

Take advantage of Plastazote® foam inserts & packaging

So should you use Plastazote® foam for your packaging or handling applications?

The likely answer – if you are experiencing returns, damaged products either following transit or even handling in plant, or have high-value items that need to be protected – is yes.

Whether used for case inserts, foam dunnage or protective packaging, Plastazote® is a solution that can make a surprisingly significant impact on your business.

Please note: AZOTE®, Plastazote® and Zotefoams® are registered trademarks of Zotefoams plc.

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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