As businesses gear up for the Christmas season, stocking up on delivery packaging will be high on the agenda. For fragile or heat-sensitive objects, this usually means some form of protective foam packaging. After all, both sender and receiver want the same thing from online holiday orders: for the product to survive the journey in one piece.
The vast majority of protective foam packaging today is made from fossil oil. For commercial entities considering renewable versions, the selection of biobased options is wider than ever. But first – why make the switch?
The environmental hazard of oil-based foam
Protective foam packaging comes in three main forms: foamed polyethylene (PE), polyurethane (PU) and expanded polystyrene (EPS). For decades, these oil-based materials have been the default option for wares in transit due to their cost and practicality.
These insulating, shock-absorbent materials are easy to cut or mould to sizes, such as blocks that slot together to form a fitted casing. Lightweight, and above all cheap, plastic packaging foam is a reminder of just how versatile petrochemicals are in making cost-effective materials fit for function.
Even the most environmentally conscious business can find it hard to dispense with these materials. Yet all the go-to protective materials are incredibly damaging to the environment.
Many recycling programmes do not accept common packaging foams even though some can in theory be processed into new products. With low recycling capacity, the material is likely to end up in landfill or the natural environment after just one use.
In the wild, foam poses a public health and biodiversity hazard, transforming into toxic byproducts as it breaks down and forming microbeads that leach into the food chain. When animals ingest it, it causes digestive obstructions, starvation, and reduced fertility, among other health issues, meaning that the packaging industry is currently a major contributor to the biodiversity crisis.
Scandinavian wood foam
Luckily, today’s biobased replacements for foam packaging can compete with petrochemical versions on function and performance. Most are made from wood fibre materials, including those from Finnish company Stora Enso, a rising renewable materials producer.
Stora Enso have developed two biobased protective foam-like packaging options, both in their pilot phase: Fibrease and Papira. Fibrease is a wood fibre-based foam material specifically designed as an alternative to polyurethane foam (PU) foam and expanded polystyrene (EPS).
Fibrease’s standout feature is its ‘memory foam’ behaviour, providing a supportive structure that fits around the product and fixes it in place during transit. Because of its thermal insulation properties, it is also suited for temperature-sensitive deliveries such as medical shipments.
Stora Enso developed and refined itl through a collaboration with Nefab, a B2B packaging solutions and logistics services company, to prove the material in use for shock and resilience through transport. The French electrical system group Thales now uses Fibrease instead of PU for delivery packages, contributing to Stora Enso’s piloting process for the material.
Papira, Stora Enso’s other biobased foam offering, is meant to be a direct replacement for all three oil-based packaging foams: polyethylene (PE), polystyrene (EPS) and polyurethane (PU). Stora Enso is currently assessing the material to get it certified for its recyclability and biodegradability as well as measuring its environmental impacts.
Being made from wood-based cellulose, both of Stora Enso’s biobased foams can be recycled in ordinary paper processing streams, reducing the chances they will end up in the environment and opening the way for a more circular, material-efficient packaging industry.
This marks a big improvement on conventional foam packaging. The vast majority of PU foam is not recycled today because it cannot be melted down and moulded into new products. Similarly, very few recycling companies offer services for PE foam. By contrast, the European recycling rate for fibre-based paper products is around 83%.
Stora Enso is just one Scandinavian company developing wood-based protective packaging. Fibu is another, drawing on Swedish forests to make a whole range of biobased replacements for various protective delivery packaging.
The company makes three products that it tweaks to suit different packaging applications. First is their void fill – spongy, cross-shaped pellets made of wood that can replace expandable plastic peanuts for cushioning. Another is a woolly, insulating wrap. Finally, they offer cut foam blocks designed to keep the most delicate products still during transit.
Wood-waste foam maximises sustainability benefits
Stora Enso get their wood from FSC-certified forests, a certification service that assesses responsible forestry practices and claims they harvest responsibly, with “solid processes in place to protect forest biodiversity” and sourcing only from habitats where professional conservation value assessments have been conducted. Fibu also says that their feedstock comes from sustainably managed forests.
Some consumers may object to seeing virgin wood feedstock go into single-use packaging. Growing and then harvesting forest wood places additional burden on the environment such as emissions from vehicles for forest maintenance and harvesting equipment. These can add a considerable carbon footprint to the eventual product. Further, if the product does not end up getting recycled and reused, it means additional trees have to be felled to replace the material that has been removed from the market.
It is difficult to justify expending unnecessary emissions and ecosystem damage on a product with a limited use life. Here, bio-waste can step in to keep environmental impacts to a minimum.
Finnish startup Fiberwood draws on the byproducts of the mechanical wood industry rather than virgin wood to make its bio-based styrofoam (EPS) replacements. This means no additional pressure is placed on forest ecosystems and cuts back the emissions associated with cultivation and harvest. The company remains in its seed funding stages and is just starting to scale production capabilities at its pilot plant.
Cruz Foam, shrimp waste, and Hollywood credentials
Waste wood is not the only feedstock that reduces carbon emissions and ecosystem damage. Chitin, a natural substance found in the shells of sea creatures, is a rising star in the biomaterials world. Each year, the seafood industry discards millions of tonnes of byproduct containing this potentially valuable raw material.
Californian startup Cruz Foam, founded in 2017, is the leading name in creating shock-proof, has managed to turn chitin from seafood industry discard into protective foam products The company formally began marketing its product in February 2023 at the same time as it announced its partnership with packaging supplier Atlantic Packaging. Its patented foam is compostable and, according to the company, both outperforms equivalent plastic-based products and exceeds industry standards on sustainability.
The product aims to replace EPS and PU but also other oil plastic packaging staples like bubble wrap (low-density polyethylene). This points to an additional draw of new circular and biobased materials: it promises to simplify the packaging landscape by offering just a few materials with multiple functionalities, doing away with the prolific forms of protective packaging in use today.
The major sustainability advantage of Cruz Foam’s material is that it needs no specialised bioplastics recycling plant to break it down safely at the end of its life. Consumers can compost the material at home and it will break down relatively quickly into organic waste.
The material meets two global specifications for compostable standards that measures how long and how safely materials can biodegrade. It also meets two globally recognised standards for compostability, the ASTM D6400 and the D6868. The low-impact waste feedstock that makes up the material, combined with its rapid, non-toxic degradability, makes this potentially one of the most sustainable scaled foam packaging materials on the market.
Protective packaging may not spring to mind as an arena for showbiz but US company Cruz Foam has managed to shine the limelight on sustainable foam thanks to investment backing from Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher. The actors are also advisors to the company.
Cruz Foam’s first year successes
It’s been a busy year for Cruz Foam after its February launch. In July, Hemp Black, a division of EcoFibre that makes innovative hemp apparel fabrics, entered a manufacturing agreement with Cruz Foam. Under the deal, Hemp Black agreed to create a packaging material for Cruz Foam. Cruz Foam will provide the manufacturing equipment and product materials while Hemp Black will operate the entire production line, due to be operational by 2024. The agreement’s initial term is for three years.
The Hemp Black-Cruz Foam partnership was sealed just at the same time as Ecofibre, Hemp Black’s parent company, was growing commercially. Just at the same time as they secured their foam packaging partnership, EcoFibre entered a three year agreement to supply sportswear brand Under Armour with its yarn. Shortly after, shares in Ecofibre went up 50%. This underlines how adopting sustainable packaging materials can be a part of wider expansion strategies.
Right now, the surfing industry is undergoing a sea change as its environmentally-conscious consumer cry out for more sustainable products – a wave that Cruz Foam has been happy to ride. In September, surfboard company Ventana became another one of Cruz Foam’s earliest customers when it adopted Cruz Foam’s material to line its surfboard fixing kit, Save-A-Surf.
Sustainability sticks as consumer priority
If the environmental impacts of protective plastic packaging weren’t enough to prompt a shift to eco-friendlier alternatives, perhaps consumer attitudes might. A McKinsey survey across 11 countries and 11, 5000 consumers in 2023 found the majority of respondents say they are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging.
Ocean litter and water pollution were the top two environmental impacts that consumers thought about in terms of their packaging, meaning recyclable and compostable options should be priorities for businesses mulling biobased packaging options.
Insistence on sustainable packaging heightens within particular demographics. In another survey from earlier in 2023 by Trivium Packaging across consumers in Europe, North America, and South America, it was found that 90% of Gen Z consumers were willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. These consumer surveys demonstrate that protective packaging is no longer a throwaway thought for those receiving Christmas gifts through the post.
While the biobased protective packaging industry has achieved practical results over the last few years, more regulation is needed to standardise procedures for assessing the full carbon and ecological impacts of these options. This would enable consumers to compare the sustainability benefits of packaging more rigorously. The EU is moving towards this by trying to harmonise environmental life cycle analysis procedures for all biobased products.
The biobased foam industry could also think more about the aesthetic components of the unboxing process – a key part of consumer engagement with products ordered online. More colours and striking shapes could be where the industry may head next in a bid to raise the profile of the humble protective foam.