Sustainable Packaging Material: How Air Cushions Fit In

August 15, 2018

Sustainable Packaging Material: How Air Cushions Fit In

Plastic is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of sustainability. Did you know, though, that when it comes to protecting what matters, air cushion films are one of the best sustainable packaging options available on the current market?

Contrary to popular belief, inflatable plastic films are one of the greenest choices available when it comes to protective packaging – doubly so if you buy a biodegradable variant. It might sound counterintuitive to think of plastic as something that can help in the battle for ecological and economic sustainability, but there’s much more to this than just “what material is better?”

When compared to its conventional recyclable counterparts like paper, glass, and aluminium, plastic is still the best option for a flexible, cost-effective material that provides excellent protection and barrier properties. And, while wonderful new materials like microfibrillated cellulose, algae agar, and casein (the fancy word for cheese protein) exist, the technology to scale these materials at an industrial level just isn’t where it needs to be yet to make them viable – not to mention a few other chemical and physical issues that researchers are still trying to address.

With that in mind, we’d like to discuss where plastic air cushion films sit compared to all these other materials and why they’re the most sustainable packaging option you can choose from when it comes to protecting your products in transit. But first, let’s address the elephant in the room.

Defining Sustainability

If you love keeping the earth green and healthy, let us say we are right there with you. We’re not blind to the problems that plague our planet from greenhouse gas emissions to the mountains of waste in our landfills and oceans. We’ve explained our feelings about these issues and we strive to create greener, more sustainable packaging that’s cost-effective for our customers without adding to the pollution of our world.

With that said, promoting sustainability is much more than just demonizing the way we live. If we want to change, we have to be willing – an attitude FP adopted 50 years ago when we began by repurposing paper straw ends. We’ll continue to invite change in the next 50 as we find our next packaging innovations to come.

Merriam-Webster defines sustainability in two ways (from “sustainable”)

  1. capable of being sustained.
  2. A. of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged. B. of, or relating to, a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods.

Naturally, when applied to business, sustainability means acting in a way that ensures your business (and by extension, the world it exists in) will remain year over year. This is done through efficient practices and procedures, using materials from renewable (or, at the very least, recyclable) sources, and – most importantly – mitigating waste at all levels, whether it’s time, money, or resources.

An Unlikely Hero

One of the industrial problems attached to plastic is that it’s much easier to create new plastic than it is to recycle it.

A few of the issues that feed into this larger problem are too much research on production technology instead of recycling and reclaim, that recycled plastic cannot be classified as food-grade given current laws and standards, and that often the infrastructure is not in place to recycle even recylable materials. For example, all of our films can be recycled, but not all municipal waste centers have the technology to accept them. With so many kinds of plastics, legislating and developing technologies to handle them all easily is a hurdle we, as a species, are struggling to surmount. But that isn’t to say it can’t be done.

FP International maintains its commitment to finding sustainable packaging alternatives. For us, given the conventional options available and the experimental ones making headway, plastic air cushions still are the most effective AND most sustainable option when it comes to packaging.

You must be wondering by now though: how does plastic compare with all the other options? Let’s start with the ones we’re all familiar with.

Comparing Conventional Counterparts

There are four main categories of conventional packaging materials: plastics, paper, metals (mainly aluminum or tin), and glass.

Since we’re focused on protective packaging, glass and metal can be excluded due to their fragility and rigidness. For instance, when you ship something in or made of glass, you wrap it in something else to protect it; conversely, you don’t wrap something in glass for this reason. Aluminum and tin work well for beverage and liquid packaging (soda cans, canned foods, candy tins, etc.) but neither are flexible and malleable enough to protect against piercing blows.

That leaves only paper as a conventional, sustainable packaging competitor.

Now we’re trained to think that because paper comes from trees it is automatically the greenest option. However, that’s a dangerous assumption to make, especially if you’re not taking the whole harvest and production processes into account. Paper production causes a whole slew of unexpected problems, including deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and leaching chemicals (used to bleach, treat, and dye it) into the water, soil, and air.

Out of these four materials, plastic air cushion films are your best sustainable bet for protective packaging. While plastic production isn’t without it’s demons, if the name of the sustainability game is to use less while still getting the job done, air cushion films outperform their conventional material counterparts. When paper is used comparatively as a bracing material, you’d need eight feet to achieve the same protection as just one foot of air cushion film. Even then, paper packaging still doesn’t protect the contents of the package as well as air cushion does.

Don’t believe us? Imagine (heaven forbid) you were about to be in a car accident. What would you rather have between your head and the dashboard upon impact: an inflatable nylon (read: plastic) bag or a bunch of crumpled paper? That same logic applies to protecting fragile packages in transit while they’re bumped and jostled around. You’re going to want a material that’s strong enough to withstand the blow and act as a cushion between the impact and the fragile thing it’s protecting.

But then if the argument is the air acting as a cushions, not the plastic, why not paper, glass, or metal? Again, using the car crash scenario, of the four materials presented, which would you rather have filled with air and acting as a buffer between your face and the windshield?

To bring this point home, if sustainability is the practice of finding the best way to get the job done while using less material, plastic – as a packaging and bracing material – is the clear victor as it satisfies both of those criteria.

But certainly there are better materials still than plastic, right?

Innovation in Sustainable Packaging

There are a myriad of new alternative “plastics” that are being researched and developed with the intent to dethrone conventional plastic. Certainly, substances like microfibrillated cellulose (MFC), agar derived from algae, and casein are renewable, and more eco-friendly materials than plastic. A lack of industrial scalability and quality for the purpose of packaging hold them back.

Microfibrillated Cellulose

Microfibrillated cellulose is a very interesting polymer that’s derived from wood, then bonded to paper to give it the plastic-like qualities of water- and air-proofing. MFC has other industrial applications like controlling the drying time of concrete and other coatings. While binding MFC to paper for the sake of wrapping or packaging foods (think butcher paper) keeps these foods fresher than standard paper, it still isn’t as strong of a barrier material as regular plastic. Barrier properties aside, it still doesn’t improve function for bracing products inside a shipping package much.

This material might be of interest if packaging films could be made entirely out of MFC, however, a lot of its research emphasis is on its applications as a coating or an additive, not a standalone material. While it can be derived from plant waste and processed at a competitive price point, there isn’t enough focus on using MFC to completely replace plastic compared to the intent to bolster paper. Still, Packaging Digest is right in keeping microfibrillated cellulose on their radar as an “exciting emerging sustainable packaging material” to look out for in the future.

Algae Agar

Algae agar – a plastic-like substance derived from algae – has found its way as a food packaging alternative, most recognizably used in edible water bottles. It certainly has the malleability of plastic and provides a scalable alternative, but there’s still a number of issues that have yet to be addressed, chiefly safety over time.

Because the agar is edible, what are the health implications of a food or beverage sitting on a store shelf, being touched by countless people before ending up with the final purchaser? And given the agar will begin to decompose after a while, is this new material causing more waste? If people don’t buy the bottled drinks fast enough, they’ll literally break down into puddles – a useful feature when minimizing garbage on the beach, but not so much when trying to optimize shelf-life.

Ari Jónsson, the designer of the algae bottle, acknowledges the material’s shortcomings but says, it’s still a good start in the right direction: “This project is still only in the beginning stages and there are so many things that have to be looked at closely. One big challenge to look at is how the bottles tear easily. They are like paper in that sense that if it gets a little cut, it will keep ripping apart rather easily. […] I can’t claim that this is the perfect solution for our problem with plastic bottles, but it’s a start.”

While it might be the start of a functional alternative to plastic bottles, whether algae agar can be used as a bracing material for shipping packages remains to be seen.

Casein

Lastly, casein – or otherwise milk protein – has been researched by the FDA as a potential replacement for plastic wrapping films for meats or other deli items. Creating “milk plastic” is nothing new, with products being made all the way back to the early 1900s. It’s simple enough that you can even make it at home.

While casein as an alternative to plastic films on its own was struggling to gain traction – it just dissolves in water – adding pectin, a complex carbohydrate from citrus fruits, to the mixure made casein-based films much more resilient. They do so well, in fact, that casein film performs 500 times better than plastic film when it comes to oxygen permeability. So why isn’t it used?

The two main issues come from industrial scalability and health concerns. From the industrial side, the problem is diverting another food source into industrial application not unlike the corn-to-ethanol industry. Not to mention increasing the size of our cattle herds in order to produce more milk to create casein, would increase the greenhouse gas emissions that already stem from the dairy and meat industry.

From a public health standpoint, packages made from casein could also be hazardous to those with milk allergies that produce histamine reactions and potentially fatal anaphylaxis.

While these materials do seem promising, they’re still a ways out from being equal competitors to plastic in the protective packaging realm. Granted, no material is without its pitfalls, but it’s a matter of choosing the right tool for the job.

Minimizing Your Packaging Footprint

If you claim to care about ecological sustainability, you have to remember that – at its core – sustainability is about mitigating waste while still providing a quality solution to the problem. Plastic as a material in its own right is not the issue so much as its misuse and improper handling after creation. In the absence of a better material for packaging and barrier protection, we need better technology to cleanly recycle plastic.

In that same vein, we can also find better ways to augment plastic to be more eco-friendly without minimizing its useful qualities, like with FP’s green packaging films. As consumers, we also need to find better ways to keep plastic and other waste out of landfills and our oceans so reusing plastic bags and air cushions wherever we can is paramount to sustainability.

But no matter your feelings, as it stands at the time of writing, plastic air cushions are the best conventional, sustainable answer to your packaging needs. As soon as that changes, we’ll adapt yet again to find an even better material as we’ve done in the past. Because here at FP International, we’re all about protecting what matters. Doesn’t it make sense to use something that can actually… well… protect?



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