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Wood foam packaging – what is it, and should you be using it?

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

Cellulose foam packaging

Is wood foam packaging a good fit for your business?

As a relatively recent development, you may not have heard of wood foam packaging. But should you consider using it at your business?

This guide sets out exactly what wood foam is, takes an impartial look at its pros and cons, and details several packaging applications where it is now a commercially viable (and often preferable) option.

It covers:

  • What wood foam is.
  • The current material options available.
  • Benefits and limitations of the material.
  • Applications for wood foam packaging.

Contents

Introduction

What is wood foam packaging?

Before detailing the pros and cons of the material, it is essential to answer the question: what is wood foam packaging?

Wood foam packaging is an alternative to polymer-based foams. It uses cellulose fibres derived from trees. As such, end users can easily recycle wood foam packaging alongside other paper-based packaging in kerbside collections. Wood foam is becoming popular for eCommerce packaging and gift box foam applications.

Wood foam packaging
Wood foam packaging is - as the name suggests - made using wood. Photo credit: Stora Enso.

Wood foam options

At present, there is only one type of wood foam packaging available, Fibrease® by Stora Enso. However, this is soon to be joined by another Stora Enso product, Papira®.

Both products are wood-based, but there are subtle differences between them.

Fibrease® by Stora Enso

Fibrease® is the first commercially available wood foam for packaging. Produced using sustainable Nordic wood, it provides good damping, cushioning and insulative properties.

Suitable conversion methods include die-cutting, waterjet cutting, sawing and laminating. Foam converters can use it to produce various packaging products, particularly foam-lined boxes and gift box foam.

However, its strongest selling point is that end users can easily recycle the material alongside the outer cardboard pack.

Fibrease wood foam
Fibrease is currently the only commercially available wood packaging foam. Photo credit: Stora Enso.

Papira® by Stora Enso

Papira® is another wood foam packaging material in development at Stora Enso. Although not currently available, Papira® offers the same benefits as Fibrease® but with the added benefit that it is also fully biodegradable.

Being biodegradable ensures that any Papira® material that does not find its way into recycling streams will decompose over time without leaving any plastic pollution.

Whilst Papira® is still in development, it is expected to offer performance similar to Fibrease®.

Benefits of wood foam packaging

Why should your business consider wood foam packaging options?

So, with a couple of options now available (or soon to be at least), what are the potential advantages should your business switch to wood foam?

There are several benefits of using wood foam packaging, including:

  • Uses renewable resources.
  • Minimises plastic pollution.
  • Attractive appearance.
  • Protection in transit.
  • Ease of recycling.
  • Improved brand perception.

Uses renewable resources

One of the key benefits, from an environmental point of view, is that wood foam packaging uses renewable resources – trees!

Both Fibrease® and Papira® use Nordic wood for sustainable sources (including FSC), in contrast to using finite fossil-based materials (i.e. plastic).

Besides this, wood-based foam packaging significantly reduces CO2 emissions when replacing polymer foams.

Wood foam material
Wood foam uses natural, renewable resources (trees) in its manufacture

Minimises plastic pollution

Wood-based foams also help to reduce plastic pollution. Papira® is fully biodegradable, and it and Fibrease® encourage end-user recycling through ease of use (being collected as part of kerbside schemes in the UK).

As such, plastic is much less likely to end up in the oceans/environment.

Attractive appearance

From a commercial rather than an environmental perspective, wood foam packaging provides a unique, attractive aesthetic appearance. Its white/neutral colouring makes it ideal if your brand positions itself as a sustainable option within your market.

Besides its appearance, wood foam packaging also provides a tactile experience for customers., being soft and pleasant to handle.

Protection in transit

Although not offering the same level of performance as traditional foam packaging, wood foam can still provide suitable protection for a wide range of items in transit.

It protects items by retaining them within the pack, preventing multiple items from colliding with each other or the outer walls and becoming damaged. It also provides cushioning that absorbs shocks, impact and mishandling during transit.

Ease of recycling

Perhaps the most significant benefit of wood foam packaging is that it is considerably easier for your customers to recycle.

As previously mentioned, end users can simply place wood foam into the same recycling bins as paper and cardboard. Not only does this make your customer’s lives considerably easier, but it also significantly reduces the chances of recyclable material ending up in landfills.

Wood foam recycling
Wood foam is accepted in UK kerbside collections, making recycling easy for end users

Improved brand perception

Finally, using paper and wood-based packaging can have a surprisingly significant impact on the way consumers perceive your brand.

Many demographics now indicate a strong preference for more sustainable businesses, and shipping products in easily recyclable packaging made using natural materials is a big plus point for these consumers.

Wood foam suitability

Are there reasons why wood foam packaging may not be suitable?

So, with several advantages to using wood foam packaging, is it as simple switching materials? Well, no, not quite. Wood foam has slightly different properties and characteristics that may not make it suitable for every industry, product or application.

The reasons wood foam packaging may not always be suitable include the following:

  • Lower performance levels than similar polymer-based foams.
  • Potential for dust.
  • Limited conversion methods.
  • Costs.

Lower performance

Whilst wood foam provides cushioning for items in transit, its performance levels are not (currently) as high as the specialist polymer-based foam such as Stratocell, Ethafoam and Plastazote. Unlike these traditional foams, it is also not possible to use software to calculate the precise amount and type of wood foam material required to provide specific levels of performance.

As such, if you have particularly fragile, expensive or important items that simply cannot be damaged in transit, it may still be better to use a plastic-based (or recycled) foam material.

Sustainable transit packaging foam
Wood foams may not be suitable for all transit packaging applications due to their different performance levels

Potential for dust

Depending on the conversion method, wood foam has the potential to create noticeable amounts of dust over time.

Whilst this is not a problem for most products, it makes wood foam packaging unsuitable for any that may be damaged or have reduced lifespan from exposure to fibres (particularly electronic components). It may also rule the material out for any high-end products or applications, depending on your brand positioning and customer expectations.

The other implication here is the potential health and safety issue for packing staff that may handle large volumes of the material.

Limited conversion methods

Whilst suitable wood foam conversion methods include sawing, laminating, die cutting and forming with a waterjet, it is not possible to use a CNC router to create recesses within the material.

As such, for very intricate products, it may be challenging to get a precise fit within the foam, unlike with polymer-based options. Again, this may be a problem for high-end applications or where transit protection is the primary concern.

Costs

As a relatively new material, wood foam packaging is currently more expensive than traditional plastic-based foams.

Another key point to consider here is that wood foam packaging is not, unlike polymer foams, subject to the UK plastic packaging tax. As such, the overall cost difference is reduced somewhat.

Applications for wood foam packaging

Areas where your business should consider switching to wood foam packaging

Taking into account the strengths and limitations of the material, there are several applications where your business could potentially switch to wood foam packaging.

Gift box foam

Arguably, the application wood foam is most suitable for is gift box packaging.

Wood foam is ideal for creating inserts for both retail and presentation packs and is already becoming popular amongst cosmetics and healthcare products (this is particularly true of brands marketing themselves as organic and/or sustainable).

Gift box foam
The natural, organic appearance of wood foam makes it ideal for gift box inserts

eCommerce packs

Another market taking a strong interest in wood foam is eCommerce packaging.

In this scenario, wood foam can replace excessive use of plastic-based void fill (such as polystyrene packing peanuts). Wood foam not only provides improved protection and appearance but also the critical benefit of ease of recycling.

Foam-lined boxes

Many businesses use standard “foam-lined boxes” for their postal and eCommerce shipments. Wood foam may be suitable to replace the plastic foam typically used for the lining, providing similar performance at a similar cost.

Temperature controlled packaging

Finally, as wood-based foams provide good insulative properties, they have the potential for use for temperature-controlled packaging (i.e. to keep food or other sensitive items at a safe temperature during delivery).

Wood-foam Temperature-control packaging
Wood foam has potential for use in temperature control packaging due to its insulative properties. Photo credit: Stora Enso.

Summary

Should your business switch to wood foam packaging?

Although a relatively new material, a number of businesses are already considering wood-based foam packaging.

However, due to the differences in protective performance, longevity, cost and recyclability, it is not always a straightforward switch. However, there is a wide range of applications where using wood foam could have benefits for your business.

Having been converting foams of all types for over 30 years, we can provide impartial advice on whether you should seriously consider switching.

So, if you would like further information and advice on wood foam packaging, please do not 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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