As a buyer, why be concerned with the different types of packaging?

Importer's guide to types of packaging for smaller products

The different types of Packaging provide a protective layer for products made from many common materials and are unique in that they provide both protection during shipping and storage, but also act as a sales and marketing tool, as well.

Anyone importing goods from abroad needs to understand which of the different types of packaging may be best suited to their products and budget and this guide will introduce you to 8 common packaging materials, dunnage, and packaging with very specific roles, such as for electronic products or components. We’ll also introduce their approximate costs, benefits, drawbacks, and other information such as how ‘green’ they are.

Note, the packaging described is more appropriate for smaller, non-industrial items and products.

Table of Contents

KEY for Approximate Cost and Environmentally-Friendliness

The following types of packaging and dunnage are rated for cost and environmentally-friendliness on a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being lower and 3 higher.

Cost = 💰.   Environmentally-friendliness = 🌿.

Introduction to packaging

The benefits of packaging

Understanding the importance of packaging is key for importers.

We can summarise the benefits of packaging as follows:

  • Provides physical protection from damage which can be caused by many circumstances, such as extreme temperatures, electrostatic discharge, vibrationdropping, and other kinds of impact, such as being crushed. In addition, it will prevent contamination by things like dust and humidity which can also harm electronics.
  • Offers helpful containment for the many small items and accessories that commonly come with today’s consumer products, such as a mobile phone.
  • Gives your goods a line of defense against tampering in case anyone tries to get into them during transit and delivery.
  • Helps distribution and warehousing staff by incorporating elements such as a handle or a shape that lends itself to stacking.
  • In some cases, the packaging may have a premium design and finish, which reflects well on the vendor with the customer (think Apple’s packaging). It may also be created from sustainable materials that are ever more important to many of today’s consumers and also has an influence on their perception of the vendor.

Packaging Design

If we circle back to Apple’s packaging again, you can see that it is functional, simple, and well-designed:

apple packaging type

Not only does it offer containment for the many accessories, but it also helps to provide the client with a feeling that they have bought a premium device.

It is very common for companies to spend a lot of time designing their products, but how many put in the time and effort to design their packaging to the extent that Apple, in this example, have?

As well as assuring that your packaging provides the requisite protection, which is a must, paying attention to design could also be beneficial for sales, too.

study in the journal Psychology & Marketing from 2013 found that attractive packaging caused more brain activity related to an impulsive system and the feeling of reward. So, in essence, the design of packaging literally attracts consumers to buy the product!

So, aside from protection, does your packaging:

  • Appeal to consumers?
  • Act as an extension of your company branding?

These needs are something to communicate to your packaging designer or supplier as well.

9 types of packaging (suitable for smaller products)

Let’s look at some of the typical packaging materials that can be used as primary consumer packagings, such as containers for drinks or cosmetics, as well as transport and industrial packaging for smaller products, and their features and benefits.

1. Rigid Boxes 💰💰💰 🌿🌿🌿

We return to our friend the Apple iPhone box. It’s made from a type of cardboard called a ‘rigid box.’ It isn’t only Apple that uses this style of packaging, though. Many premium smaller items such as watches, jewelry, cosmetics, and fashion accessories will come in one of these rigid boxes which are often configured as you see in the example to be a kind of ‘gift box’ including different types of containment for multiple parts.

rigid boxes

They’re made from highly condensed paperboard that is 4 times thicker than that used in a standard folding carton (which will likely be a plain brown collapsible type of box which is noticeably quite light in weight). You’ll notice that they usually have a very rigid structure when you knock on them; they’re also noticeably dense and heavy.

They benefit importers by being highly customizable, as they are able to be printed, have a glossy/ matte lamination exterior, be given an AQ coating, varnished, have flocking, be gold / silver hot-stamped (with foil), and/or embossed.

In terms of cost, design and protection come at a price and they’re one of the more expensive packaging types in comparison to corrugated cardboard boxes and paperboard boxes, hence being used for premium items.

Benefits

  • Strong
  • Premium ‘look’ and ‘feel’
  • Can be made by hand and doesn’t require machinery to construct
  • Possible to configure to include containment features like platforms, windows, lids, hinges, compartments, domes, and embossed patterns or lettering
  • Great for products and goods of almost any shape and size

Drawbacks

  • Expensive
  • Usually not collapsible (therefore more volume to ship which increases costs)
  • Not packaging that would be used alone, it would typically be product-packaging with additional transit/export packaging to protect it

2. Paperboard 💰💰 🌿🌿🌿

Paperboard is most similar to a thick paper rather than cardboard and is an affordable packaging choice for small products.

This is why it’s seen used in anything from fast food packaging, through to product display boxes.
What it lacks in rigidity, it makes up for in its readiness to be manipulated, cut, folded, and printed or colored with a variety of finishes.

Paperboard

It’s made from wood pulp and can be made from 100% recycled material. Depending on its final application, 1-ply or multiple-ply forms exist, although, for packaging which is meant to provide protection to small consumer goods and is likely shaped to fit, a multi-ply form will be more appropriate as it is stronger than single-ply which can flex quite easily.

Price-wise, in general paperboard is inexpensive as you would expect of paper, although it can still be printed and given a premium finish or texture and so is relevant for use retail packaging.

If coated with an antistatic chemical, it can even be used to package electronics safely, too.

Benefits

  • Reasonably affordable
  • Has a large variety of applications
  • Can be made by hand and doesn’t require machinery to construct
  • Recyclable and can use 100% sustainable material (paper), so is a ‘green’ choice
  • Easy to cut and alter into many forms
  • Great for products and goods of almost any shape and size

Drawbacks

  • Lacks strength and rigidity, especially 1-ply paperboard
  • May not withstand moisture, dust, and other contaminants well depending on the form and finish
  • Not as ‘premium’ as other packaging types

3. Chipboard 💰 🌿🌿🌿

Chipboard packaging is a type of paperboard and not to be confused with MDF (Medium-density fibreboard). In a similar process to MDF, the chipboard is made from reclaimed paper (instead of wood) which is compressed together into the chipboard and bonded with glue or resin.

chipboard

Aside from being very sustainable and always made with recycled material, the chipboard has very similar features to paperboard. It is easily manipulated and also inexpensive.

It usually comes in two colors, brown or white, and its strength is dependent on the density of the chipboard. The denser it is, the stronger and more rigid it will become, but still, it won’t usually approach the levels of the rigidity of a rigid box. If it’s given a finish it’s also possible to print on it.

It is generally a lightweight material, and to give you an example of common chipboard packaging, think of cereal boxes – they’re chipboard! However, heavy-duty chipboard which is far denser can be used for shipping boxes, too.

Benefits

  • Inexpensive
  • Has a large variety of applications
  • Can be made by hand and doesn’t require machinery to construct
  • Recyclable and uses 100% sustainable material (paper), so is a ‘green’ choice
  • Great for products and goods of almost any shape and size
  • Easy to cut and alter into many forms
  • Available in both light and heavyweight forms
  • Can be antistatic to protect electronics
  • Can be printed

Drawbacks

  • Lightweight chipboard is thin and not too rugged
  • May not withstand moisture, dust, and other contaminants well depending on its form and finish
  • Not as ‘premium’ as other packaging types

4. Corrugated Cardboard 💰 🌿🌿🌿

This is what we know as ‘cardboard’ and is very commonly used for shipping/export cartons and boxes used for storing items, but is also used in retail packaging and even for takeaway pizza cartons!

corrugated cardboard

Cardboard is, in fact, a multi-layered paper. The corrugated part refers to the fluted medium which provides strength, insulation, and protection and lies between an inner and outer heavyweight paper in a kind of ‘sandwich.’

As you can see below, there are different types of corrugated ‘fluting’ available:

cardboard fluted layers

More fluted layers will equal a stronger, more rigid package (and higher costs, too).

Cardboard is generally made with recycled paper which makes it reasonably inexpensive and sustainable.

It is possible to cut and shape cardboard and many boxes are flat-pack which are shaped and ready to construct into the packaging’s final form by hand. In some cases, it is also used to create mock versions of prototype components and products, such as furniture.

Benefits

  • Inexpensive
  • Incredibly wide usage
  • Can be made by hand and doesn’t require machinery to construct
  • Recyclable and uses 100% sustainable material (paper), so is a ‘green’ choice
  • Easy to cut and alter into many forms
  • Protects electronics when given an antistatic coating
  • Can be printed and provided in a variety of finishes: matte/gloss laminate or varnish, embossed, etc.
  • Great for products and goods of almost any shape and size

Drawbacks

  • Price can increase for the multiple walled boards
  • Unless finished, can be susceptible to moisture and humidity
  • Usually doesn’t have a premium look or finish

5. Cotton 💰💰💰 🌿🌿🌿

Cotton is a natural and somewhat sustainable fiber that is used in almost any application in consumers’ everyday lives. As the world’s most used textile, we see cotton in use in apparel, furnishings, and, of course, packaging, and storage.

Eco-conscious brands may go for cotton bags as the primary consumer packaging for their products. You could imagine a piece of jewelry or ornament being packaged in the gift bags below, for example:

cotton bags

Sought after for its soft, breathable properties, cotton makes great garments, but as soft and quality-looking fabric, it would be appropriate to package premium or sustainable goods.

Cotton is widely available in different grades and while it’s unlikely the finest ‘Long Staple’ types would be required for packaging, even so, a soft cotton bag has a premium feel and is reusable and sustainable if the cotton is responsibly sourced.

There is almost no limit to the customizability of, say, a cotton bag, and it can be dyed and printed to be very brand-appropriate or attractive for consumers to then use again in the future. This all adds to its appeal as a premium packaging type.

Benefits

  • Inexpensive in most cases
  • Fairly sustainable and reusable in many cases
  • Protects products from dirt
  • Can be printed on or painted
  • Has a softer-touch, more premium feel than jute
  • Adds to a brand’s eco-friendly image

Drawbacks

  • Non-organic or irresponsibly-sourced cotton is not very green as it has high water, pesticide, and fertilizer demands and usage
  • Limited as to what they can be used to package, as cotton bags do not provide much protection from the external environment

6. Plastics 💰💰 🌿 or 🌿🌿

Plastic has its detractors, perhaps rightly as its environmental impact grabs more and more headlines, but it is an excellent packaging material which has all but replaced ‘traditional’ materials like glass, ceramic, and wood in most applications.

plastic boxes

Versatile enough to be crafted into heavy-duty shipping/export cartons (as seen above) or delicate retail packaging like this thermoformed plastic blister pack:

plastic blister-pack

Plastics and packaging go together because plastic is durable, strong, resistant to moisture and dirt (anti-fouling), and can be formed into almost any shape thanks to processes such as injection molding. Despite being very durable, many plastic boxes are also recyclable if they’re made from the right kind of polymer.

Unlike cardboard, plastics create air and watertight containers, meaning that as well as standard items, they’re also suitable for food storage and packaging for food items (think how many ingredients are packed in airtight plastic).

Most plastics are affordable, too, oftentimes more so than natural materials from renewable sources.

Commonly used plastics in packaging

Plastic is usually given a number from 1 to 7 inside a small recycling circle. Here’s what each number is. Bear in mind when selecting the plastic that the lower the number, the more readily recycled the plastic is.

  1. PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) – transparent, glossy, and very tough. Great for protection and commonly used in drinks bottles.
  2. HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) – hard and tough with a waxy exterior. Commonly used for detergent bottles.
  3. PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) – can be soft or hard depending on additives. Used in clothing, wire sheaths, windows, pipes, and more.
  4. LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene) – waxy and slippery to the touch, tough. Commonly used for postal poly bags, sandwich bags, and packing materials.
  5. PP (Polypropylene) – light and hard, this can be seen in woven bags, bottle caps, barrels, drink cups, auto parts, and more.
  6. PS (Polystyrene) – usually colored white, polystyrene is brittle but tough, and is a good insulator. Used in toy fillings, molded packing (see later in the dunnage section), and for single-use food containers and cutlery.
  7. Other types of plastics – these plastics are generally not easily recycled, therefore are not a good choice for brands who are looking for a greener option.

What plastics are recyclable?

Unless you’re using bioplastics, all plastics are made from non-renewable fossil fuels like oil and natural gas so they score low on the scale for sustainability. As a rule, though, most plastics can be recycled and the numbered scale from 1 to 7 describes how easy this is. The plastics with lower numbers (1 & 2 for example) can be very readily recycled, and in this case, they’re far less harmful to the environment than those which are harder to recycle, or simply not recycled most of the time. A good example is PET (1). This is widely recycled and there is no reason for this plastic to end up in landfills, whereas PS (6) often ends up in landfills as it can only be recycled effectively if 100% clean. If it picks up dirt or contaminants (which it is prone to doing) it will be rejected and dumped.

👉 Learn more about plastics recycling numbers.

The ubiquitous postal ‘polybag’ is also a form of plastic, low-density polyethylene or LDPE, and is much loved by retailers who ship products by mail because it’s soft and tough at the same time:

plastic polybag

If the item can fit inside it, it can contain it, although due to its thin and flexible nature, don’t expect too much protection for the item. It is, rather, a good way to enclose the item and protect it from tampering (they’re usually sealable) and the elements instead of providing the protection of a box.

It goes without saying that plastic can come in a variety of colors, perhaps matching one’s brand, and it can also be clear which is useful in retail packaging where products are stored safely but can be seen by shoppers.

Benefits

  • Inexpensive
  • Lightweight or rugged
  • Durable, airtight, and waterproof
  • Can be printed on or painted
  • Takes many forms, from thick boxes to delicate films

Drawbacks

  • Questionable environmental impact
  • Even ‘recyclable’ plastics are often not readily recycled unless taken in by specialists
  • Don’t have a real premium feel in most cases
  • Not a great choice for fragile or rectangular-shaped goods

7. Foil Sealed Bags 💰💰 🌿

Foil sealed bags are used as packaging for smaller items, commonly food, but also apparel, textiles, and, in some forms, certain delicate items such as computer HDDs and silicon chips (such as RAM sets). They are PET film with an aluminum foil layer and while many are a basic metallic color, it’s also possible to print them with branding, for instance.

This is an HDD in a conductive antistatic foil bag, for example:

HDD in foil sealed bag

The strength of this packaging is that it is 100% vacuum sealed from the outside environment, and so it provides complete protection for moisture, dust, and any other source of contamination (mold, bacteria, etc). This is why it’s so popular as food or ingredient packaging.

If it is specially made to be conductive for use in electronics, then it will also protect against ESD by preventing an electrostatic build-up.

It is fairly delicate, so is more commonly used as packaging in environments where the packages won’t take a lot of abuse, such as in a retail store’s shelves. The vacuum sealing process will naturally condense the products inside in many cases and so foil sealed bags are a good choice for storage of items where space is an issue.

Benefits

  • Inexpensive
  • Condenses products to save space
  • Protects products from UV light, moisture, and oxygen
  • Can be printed on or painted
  • May be a suitable form of dunnage
  • Protects electronics in some forms

Drawbacks

  • Plastic is not the greenest option and the foil lining makes these bags hard to recycle with other plastics
  • Is associated with basic food packaging, and so not good for premium products
  • Can’t provide protection against impact, dropping, crushing, etc
  • Not a great choice for fragile or rectangular-shaped goods

8. Jute (Hessian/Burlap) 💰💰 🌿🌿🌿

Jute is a fibrous material sourced from the Corchurous family of plants which are usually grown in warm and wet climates. It is the second most common textile behind cotton.

Usually used for bags, twine, matting, and sacks, Jute is an increasingly popular packaging material due to its sustainability.

jute bags

As you can see in the image, reusable shopping bags are often made from jute, and the strong fiber is a hard-wearing textile which can take a lot of punishment over time. On its own, jute looks very rustic and is usually used in agricultural packagings, such as coffee sacks, floor matting, and even acoustic insulation, so it’s not, perhaps, the first choice as packaging for premium goods. But if you consider sustainable living products, such as an artisanal soap, for example, a small jute gift bag would be appropriate and welcomed by consumers who are looking for 100% sustainable products and packaging.

Benefits

  • Cheaper than cotton
  • 100% biodegradable and recyclable
  • Low pesticide and fertilizer needs as a crop
  • Can be printed and colored
  • High tensile strength and so good for use in bags

Drawbacks

  • Does not have a premium image or feel in comparison to cotton, rigid boxes, and some kinds of plastics
  • Can shed fibers
  • Good as a bag, but does not provide protection from crushing, dropping, moisture, etc

9. Envelopes / Bubble Mailers 💰 🌿🌿

Envelopes and bubble mailers are a convenient and easy way to package and ship smaller items and products such as computer components, clothing, gadgets, etc.

Primarily made from paper, they’re a low-cost packaging option and, in the case of bubble mailers, the integrated bubble wrap which lines the envelope provides a good amount of insulation and protection for the goods inside.

bubble mailer

For vendors who need to send a lot of products by post, envelopes are a low-cost packaging option that won’t add much to your costs.

The good thing is that there are many configurations to suit your needs, such as card-backed envelopes (which prevent bending), peel and seal, self-sealing, gummed, and more. Peel and seal envelopes, in particular, are quite secure as the sealant strip is very strong. If willing to spend a little more, envelopes can be customised, too, with your logo, branding, colors, etc.

As long as they provide adequate protection, consumers who appreciate eco-friendly brands will be pleased to receive recyclable paper or card envelopes (think of Amazon’s card wallet-style envelopes, for example) which they can recycle themselves at the kerb.

Benefits

  • Available in numerous sizes (common envelope sizes are C4 – A4 size, C5 – A5 size, C3 – A3 size)
  • Bubble mailers can provide enhanced protection without the need for bulky boxes
  • Low cost
  • Standard paper/card envelopes are recyclable and sustainable
  • Envelopes can be customised with branding, logos, etc
  • Bubble mailers are waterproof, making them suitable for deliveries where the envelope may be in the rain

Drawbacks

  • Bubble mailers aren’t easily recyclable
  • Potentially not the most premium feel or image
  • Only provide limited protection, not good at withstanding extreme heat or moisture
  • Can lack security
  • Not a great choice for fragile or rectangular-shaped goods

If you’re finding this guide useful, tweet it out to your followers! 👌

Types of dunnage (interior packaging)

What Is Dunnage?

First of all, let’s explain this word that you may not be familiar with. When we talk about shipping small products, dunnage refers to the inner packing materials used to protect the item/s inside the retail and shipping packaging. So this could be anything including molded plastic blister inserts, bubble wrap, styrofoam (polystyrene) inserts, various types of paper, air packs, cardboard egg box-style padding, poly bags, and more.

It’s a must to include in your packaging to secure the goods and fill any voids, as it will help protect your products/components from:

  • Shock or vibration
  • Damage (such as crushing or piercing)
  • Moisture
  • Dust
  • Shifting inside the package
  • Getting mixed together (in the case of where a product comes with components)

Let’s examine dunnage materials in more detail here:

Styrofoam (polystyrene) 💰 🌿

You’ll tend to see styrofoam (made from PS) used in two ways as dunnage. Molded shapes that fit around products precisely or provide a barrier between parts (think flat-pack furniture), or packing peanuts (small shaped foam ‘peanuts’ which are poured into the shipping package to provide protection).

Styrofoam

Because styrofoam is 95% air, it’s a strong insulator and good shock absorber which makes it especially popular with electronics manufacturers who need to protect goods from extreme temperatures and shock, as well as regular damage.

A petroleum by-product, styrofoam is cheap, lightweight, yet solid enough to provide good protection from crushing and other damage that can occur during shipping. If molded shapes aren’t relevant, packing peanuts provide a more flexible dunnage solution as they can simply be poured around items (and are a good way to recycle previously used styrofoam pieces).

styrofoam packing peanuts

Benefits

  • Inexpensive
  • Can be shaped to suit your needs
  • Resistant to moisture and temperatures
  • Lightweight, yet strong


Drawbacks

  • Non-biodegradable and isn’t readily recycled into other plastics
  • Not made from renewable sources
  • Styrene and benzene, styrofoam’s materials, are harmful petroleum by-products
  • Can be bulky
  • Can attract static

Cardboard 💰 🌿🌿🌿

Whilst cardboard can be used as shipping or retail packaging, it’s also a legitimate option for dunnage, too.

You may see:

  • Corrugated cardboard filler
  • Molded cardboard (such as egg-box style)
  • Shredded cardboard
  • Shaped cardboard containment pieces within a retail box
Eggshell cardboard

It’s popular as protective dunnage for the same reasons as it’s used for packaging, namely, it’s cheap, sustainable, and provides good protection, especially where corrugated cardboard is used.

Many companies who import and export even produce their own cardboard dunnage by investing in an industrial shredder where they shred the cardboard they receive which can then be used as dunnage in packages they send out (the same machine handles paper, too)!

shredded cardboard dunnage

Benefits

  • Inexpensive
  • Incredibly wide usage
  • Recyclable and uses 100% sustainable material (paper), so is a ‘green’ choice
  • Easy to cut and alter into many forms
  • Amongst the stronger forms of packaging

Drawbacks

  • Price can increase for corrugated forms
  • Unless finished, can be susceptible to moisture and humidity
  • Generally not the best at absorbing shock (corrugated versions are better)

Soft Plastics 💰💰 🌿🌿

Solid plastic foam, made from extruded polyethylene or Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), is often used to protect premium products such as laptops or tablet computers during shipping.

This solid foam is strong, rugged, impervious to moisture and dust, and fairly inexpensive.

You may also find a more rudimentary foam sheet used to provide some basic protection when laid upon the product being shipped.

EVA foam plastic dunnage

As a soft-touch plastic, it is less rigid than styrofoam, so can provide more protection in certain circumstances such as when a package is dropped. It’s soft enough to withstand a good amount of shock and vibration damage. Note, most plastics and foams are not anti-static unless coated, so be aware of this when selecting the right type of plastic dunnage for electronics.

Benefits

  • Excellent protection from damage
  • Provides insulation from dust, moisture, and temperature
  • Anti-static when coated
  • More premium feel for dunnage, suitable for expensive products
  • Can be shaped to fit products

Drawbacks

  • Bulkier than styrofoam
  • The plastic is recyclable, but is nonetheless non-biodegradable nor created from renewable sources
  • Costs more than styrofoam

Rigid Plastic Blisters 💰💰 🌿

Commonly made from thermoformed molded polypropylene, this plastic is notably rigid (not to the point where it will snap, but it will eventually deform when bent) and can be molded into almost any shape.

This is why molded plastic blisters are used as dunnage for products that come with accessories, for example, a cordless drill set, as it holds the pieces in place inside the packaging while also providing the regular protection expected from plastic such as toughness, ability to withstand moisture, and more.

rigid plastic blister

Benefits

  • Affordable
  • Lightweight
  • Can be shaped to fit products and accessories precisely
  • Can be recycled

Drawbacks

  • Rigid and so provides less protection from damage
  • Non-renewable materials used to produce it

Bubble Wrap 💰 🌿🌿

The world’s most fun form of dunnage! Bubble wrap (its actual name is air cellular cushioning material) is also made from polyethylene film (this is no surprise since it’s one of the most popular plastics) and is a flexible sheet that can be wrapped tightly around items or simply stuffed into a package to provide all-round insulation and protection.

bubble wrap

It comes in different varieties based on bubble size. For smaller items, the small bubbles are appropriate and the air inside is not only a good insulator but also good at withstanding shock. You can expect good insulation, resistance to moisture and dust, and protection against vibration damage.

PET film is not easy to recycle, but bubble wrap is so easy to reuse that it is one of the greener types of plastic dunnage.

Benefits

  • Affordable
  • Lightweight
  • Fits easily around products  of any shape in a package
  • Easily reusable
  • Good insulator and shock absorber

Drawbacks

  • Will not protect against heavy impacts and damage
  • Bulky (thanks to the air in the bubbles)
  • Packing paper or cardboard can be cheaper
  • Not the greenest choice as PET film is not readily recycled

Packing (Kraft) Paper 💰 🌿🌿🌿

This is a basic brown paper that is crumpled or balled up inside the package to provide the dunnage. It comes either as sheets of paper or as a long ‘snake.’

kraft paper

While packing paper is inexpensive to buy, most kinds of paper can be reused as dunnage, even the humble newspaper. Sheets of paper can be ‘scrunched,’ but it’s also possible to use shredded paper in the same way.

 

Sustainable, recyclable, and sturdy…what’s not to like? Well, paper isn’t the best at resisting moisture and extreme heat. Also, if not packed in properly, it may not prevent the goods from shifting inside a package and becoming at risk of damage (for instance, if a gap appears that lets the goods move to be in direct contact with the outer wall of the package).

Benefits

  • Affordable
  • Lightweight and takes up little space in storage
  • A green favorite. Reusable, recyclable, and sustainable
  • Easy to wrap objects with or pack into voids

Drawbacks

  • Not resistant to moisture or extreme heat
  • Lacks impact and shock protection if not packed quite densely
  • Shredded paper can be dusty

Tissue Paper 💰💰 🌿🌿🌿

Tissue paper is similar to its kraft cousin but more lightweight and…pretty! Coming in a range of colors, tissue paper is very popular and creative dunnage for small fancy trinkets like jewelry. Let’s say your branding is blue. Why not surprise your customers by wrapping their product in blue tissue paper, too?

tissue paper

As you’d expect, tissue paper isn’t top of the list for protection, but if securely packed, it still provides good insulation from bumps.

Benefits

  • Affordable
  • Lightweight and takes up little space in storage
  • A green favorite. Reusable, recyclable, and sustainable
  • Can copy your brand’s colours
  • Has a premium feel

Drawbacks

  • Not resistant to moisture or extreme heat
  • Lacks impact and shock protection if not packed quite densely

Air Bags (Pillows) 💰💰 🌿

Think of giant bubble wrap and you’re getting close. Air bags are usually used for void filling, as individual bags can be placed where needed within a package.

These cushioning ‘pods’ come in a roll and can be used as a kind of snake or each bag can be detached (they’re often perforated between each bag).

Like many types of plastic packaging, they’re made from HDPE film (High-density polyethylene) and can be recycled.

air bags

You’ll also find thicker plastic cell packaging made from PE or PA named ‘air column packaging’ which is made into a cushioned sleeve for items like laptops that require all-round protection. Protecting your products in this way is sure to impress some consumers who can appreciate that you have invested in protecting items during shipping:

air bag laptop pocket

Benefits

  • Affordable
  • Lightweight
  • Perfect for filling voids
  • Made from recyclable plastic
  • Good insulator and shock absorber

Drawbacks

  • Bulky if stored inflated
  • Made from non-renewable fossil fuel
  • If pierced loses protective properties
  • Can be prone to static
  • Plastic films are not easily recyclable everywhere and often require special facilities

Electronics packaging

We’ll explore some specifics about electronics packaging, too, as small electronic items such as PCBs, mobile phones, and other computer components have some specific needs from their packaging as electronic products and components are both expensive and fragile.

types of electronics packaging

Types Of Electronics Packaging

Electronics packaging needs to not only provide the standard protections outlined in the last section about common packaging types, but also protect against electrostatic discharge (ESD), high-frequency noise, and extremes in temperature; all of which electronics are particularly susceptible to.

Creating effective electronics packaging for your products does require some design work, or at least working with a packaging provider who is experienced and familiar with your product types.

For example, the outer packaging may be a rigid or cardboard box, but inside the products may be packed into conductive dunnage such as cardboard dividers, anti-static foam inserts, or molded plastic blisters that hold them in place and insulate them from shock, impact, etc.

Here are some key types of specifically conductive packaging that is used to protect electronics against ESD and other damage:

  • Anti-static bags – these bags come in 2 types:
    1. Dissipative antistatic bags – PET bags which are coated to enable them to dissipate any static build-up. The coating tends to make them pink or red.
    2. Conductive antistatic bags – these bags resemble the foil layered bags as they have a metallic layer as well as being made from plastic with a dissipative coating. The metallic layer shields the component or product within by preventing an electromagnetic field from being formed via the Faraday Cage Effect.
  • Coated antistatic cardboard – as packaging is transported cardboard boxes and dunnage can create static electricity when moving around due to the friction created when ‘rubbing’ against one another. Cardboard or paperboard used for electronics packaging is commonly given an antistatic chemical or sheet coating that does not allow this to occur. Since cardboard can be shaped into various containers, such as bins, boxes, and files, there are a large number of electronic components or devices that can benefit from this kind of electronic protection.
  • Antistatic plastic foam – this foam is typical dunnage for electronics and is a polyurethane (PUR and PU) foam coated or blended with a dissipative antistatic chemical. In the same way as coated cardboard, it will resist and dissipate any static electricity formed during transit and handling. Oftentimes a buyer can recognize this foam due to its pink color (due to the anti-static chemicals/coating) in comparison to other polymer foams (such as the soft EVA foam mentioned earlier) which may not be used to protect electronics.
    Plastics are clearly very versatile and these anti-static foams come in many densities and can be produced in sheets, blocks, or even molded into caps and cradles to fit and secure specific products inside their shipping package without the risk of ESD damage.

Electronics Packaging ‘Musts’

To summarise, electronics packaging should be providing the following:

  • Prevention of outside contamination, for instance from dust or ionic contaminants
  • Resistance against heat, cold, and humidity or moisture
  • Protection from radiation
  • Anti-static protection
  • The ability to stop mechanical damage to products and components (for instance, it should meet International Safe Transit Association (ISTA) drop-test requirements)

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Reusable & sustainable packaging

The guide has already mentioned certain consumers’ interest in sustainability and so let’s explore the kind of reusable packaging or dunnage that may support this movement and enhance your brand if sustainability is important.

Firstly, there is a difference between sustainable and reusable, but both can work towards the same goal of being more environmentally-friendly.

Reusable By Design

Packaging (and dunnage) which is reusable by design will usually focus on being hard-wearing (so it can last longer and be used again and again), collapsible, nestable, and simple to use for consumers. Therefore boxes, bags, and cases tend to be common, but we also see jars and containers that fit this description, too.

You could imagine the below plastic case being used primary packaging for, say, a set of cosmetics and then used by the consumer to store assorted toiletries later on:

reusable plastic case

Therefore, it isn’t ‘single-use or expendable packaging or dunnage’ like a lot of styrofoam inserts and other plastic packagings like that which will either go to landfill or can possibly be recycled.

If a brand provides reusable packaging made from non-sustainable materials like plastics, this is still far more environmentally-responsible than not doing so and can make a positive difference to the brand’s reputation.

What Can Be Reusable?

Aside from expendable packaging or dunnage that occurs in a very specific shape which doesn’t lend itself to reuse, most packaging can be reusable:

  • Cardboard boxes
  • Dunnage – bubble wrap, for instance, is not single-use
  • Plastic containers
  • Bags – plastic or a natural material like jute or cotton
  • Straps and wrapping

Guiding Consumers To Reuse Packaging

Brand messaging is a factor, too.

Consumers can be educated to see many kinds of packaging that they would usually consider to be ‘expendable’ as a reusable item.

Let’s take any cardboard box as an example. It’s almost certain that it can be reused as long as it is designed to open and remain intact without the consumer needing to destroy it. Some sustainable brands choose to add a ‘story’ or ‘message’ to such packaging suggesting how a consumer can reuse, or at least recycle, the box later on.

Proactively encouraging consumers to take the opportunity to reuse regular packaging with guidance like this helps position a brand as a leader in sustainability.

A good example of this is a British detergent company, Smol. Their fabric conditioner is purchased and comes in a reusable and recyclable plastic bottle. When empty, the consumer uses the same reusable cardboard box that it was shipped in to return it to the company for a refill, and so on.

smol reusable types of packaging

Sustainability of packaging materials is a proven issue for today’s consumers

According to statistics given in Raconteur’s ‘Future of Packaging’ 2020 report, in a poll of global shoppers, they look unfavorably on packaging’s negative impact on the environment.

global shopper packaging stats 1

About half believe that products use too much packaging and that the packaging used is difficult to recycle which shows how important the choice of packaging material and type is in order to gain consumer approval.

But the most important statistic from the above image is that 62% of consumers polled would prefer packaging that can be recycled multiple times. So, this would be materials like:

  • Paper
  • Card
  • Certain plastics, like PET and HDPE 

But the consumers go even further with their scorn for unsustainable packaging:

consumer packaging stats 2020 2

In fact, 80% feel that manufacturers should be held accountable for the recycling and reuse of the packaging they choose to use. But this doesn’t just remain as a wish in the consumer’s mind. Governments around the world are picking up on this and it is being pushed towards legislation in certain countries and states.

In Washington State in the USA, for example, legislators have been discussing a bill that “would prohibit producers that do not participate in a plastic packaging stewardship organization from selling packaging made wholly or in part from plastic in Washington State, beginning in 2022. Plastic food service products, including utensils, and other specified plastic items associated with food or beverage service are included in the definition of plastic packaging.”

This EPR (extended producer responsibility) effectively forces manufacturers and users of plastic packaging, such as takeout food containers, to put in place a plan to recycle their packaging. Stricter ERP is also planned for the UK by 2022, for example, too.

The war on unsustainable packaging, such as single-use plastics is raging, perhaps spurred on by certain countries being left high-and-dry by China’s ban on imports of plastic waste from around the world, and the EU and Canada have passed legislation to ban single-use plastics completely by 2021 which they hope can take the pressure off them, reduce the use of ‘bad’ packaging, and boost sustainable thinking. This plays well into the intention of 57% of consumers polled who stated that they would actively try to avoid products which use a lot of packaging in order to limit their contribution to climate change.

Benefits Of Reusable Packaging

  • If a company is able to build a system where consumers receive reusable packaging once and then purchase refills this leads to lower purchase or disposal costs of packaging and is also a more sustainable and eco-friendly business model.
  • The environment is protected as the reusable packaging negates the need for damaging single-use packaging made from plastics which cannot biodegrade and may be difficult or impossible to recycle.
  • Reusable packaging benefits brand image, as consumers today are more attuned to sustainable products and will welcome packaging that is either recyclable, reusable, or made from sustainable materials.

Drawbacks Of Reusable Packaging

  • The initial purchase costs of reusable packaging may be higher than single-use types due to the use of sturdier, recyclable, or higher-quality materials required.
  • Providing free return postage to consumers (for services like refills mentioned above) also increases costs.
  • Not all ‘sustainable’ packaging is easily recyclable – for instance, compostable bioplastics sound great, but they’re often only processed by industrial composting facilities that the average consumer has limited or no access to.

Will consumers be prepared to accept higher costs for sustainable products (assuming that brands pass it on to them) compared to similar competitors who don’t make the effort to be green. This is a tough decision brands need to make.

Conclusion

As we mentioned above, the different types of packaging can have differing purposes. For instance, they can be purely functional (protection and information) or can be a major part of the customer experience (sometimes costing more than the ‘product’ itself).

In most cases, packaging really is an integral part of the product. It should not be decided or designed at the very end for several reasons. It can add to the product ‘impact’ and help achieve better differentiation in the marketplace. And the design and custom manufacturing & printing can take more than a month — sometimes longer than the ‘bare product’ itself.

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