e-commerce | 4 min

The pros and cons of packaging void fill

The arrival of e-commerce has given rise to a number of new decisions to be made at the procurement level. One of them: the kind of void fill you’re going to use to ship your product. It might seem like an item of minor importance, but it isn’t.

Your type of void fill has consequences on how well your product is equipped to survive transit, but also for the way it’s perceived by your customer. Apart from that, there’s also the issue of storage and the environmental impact to consider.

Needless to say that choosing void fill wisely could have a major impact on your revenue.

January 29, 2019

Void fill type #1: packing peanuts

Packing peanuts, mostly made out of polystyrene foam (Styrofoam), have been commonly used for decades and are one of the most popular types of void fill. Recently, however, awareness has risen about Styrofoam possibly being carcinogenic, with cities and countries worldwide banning the material.

Environmentally friendly packing peanuts, made from corn starch or recycled paper, are available, but they’re more expensive and heavier than traditional ones, adding to shipping costs.

PROS

CONS

  • effective for rapidly filling up spaces
  • offer basic protection
  • cheap
  • reusable (but they rarely are)
  • need lots of storage space
  • environmentally friendly options are more expensive
  • hard to recycle
  • not biodegradable (est. 500 years to forever)
  • not fit for fragile items
  • costly and unsustainable to ship (because of the space they take up)
  • annoying for customers

Void fill type #2: bubble wrap/foam roll

Just like peanuts, bubble wrap or – alternatively – foam roll are some of the most widely used packaging supplies. The material is thin and flexible and easily wraps up any breakable or fragile items in a protective layer.

PROS

CONS

  • fun: who doesn’t love popping bubble wrap?
  • cheap
  • good protection for fragile items
  • reusable
  • doesn’t add too much bulk
  • versatile: interleaving, wrapping and cushioning
  • no recycled options available
  • big rolls take up lot of storage space
  • hard to recycle (disposal at specific drop-off points only)

Void fill type #3: air-based

Air-based void fill usually comes in the form of plastic polyethylene bags that need to be inflated by a machine. The compressed air either suspends the item in the bag, or is used as cushioning around it.

PROS

CONS

  • recycled options available
  • lightweight (doesn’t increase shipping costs)
  • saves storage space (stored uninflated)
  • clean (as opposed to peanuts or shreds)
  • needs expensive machinery to inflate
  • takes up a lot of space within package, so encourages shipping bigger boxes
  • hard to recycle (disposal at specific drop-off points only)
  • made from non-biodegradable polyethylene (est. 500 years to forever)
  • not fit for heavy items or anything with sharp edges
  • air can expand in heat

Void fill type #4: paper (tissue, butcher, newsprint)

Paper packaging supplies are used both to wrap items or as cushioning – in that case, crinkled or balled up. Paper void fill comes in many different colours, weights and thicknesses.

PROS

CONS

  • easy to customize and use for branding purposes
  • lots of recycled options
  • easily recyclable
  • doesn’t take up too much storage space
  • expensive
  • a lot of material needed to provide decent protection, due to compression
  • adds weight to container
  • doesn’t offer fool proof protection

Void fill type #5: crinkle paper

Crinkled paper void fill is basically just shredded paper or cardboard. Kind of like longer strips of confetti you use to sprinkle around a box. It’s often used for decorative purposes.

PROS

CONS

  • exists in a variety of colours
  • adds a bit of fun to a box
  • recyclable
  • lots of recycled options available
  • takes up lots of storage space
  • costly and unsustainable to ship (because of the space they take up)
  • expensive
  • messy
  • adds weight to packages

The one-size-fits-all solution: no void fill

The above analysis clearly shows that any type of void fill, however easy to use, always comes with a number of disadvantages. Typically these include additional costs (for storage and/or shipping), a higher environmental impact and annoying waste your customer needs to dispose of.

Apart from that, most types of void fill aren’t particularly aesthetically pleasing. Keeping in mind that in e-commerce, your packaging is often the first physical point of contact between your customer and your brand, that’s a major concern. Offering an improved unboxing experience, that minimizes or eliminates void fill altogether, is usually a win-win.

Made2fit your products like a glove

The reason why you need void fill is the first place, is because most packages contain lots of empty space. This causes the product to move about, which is why additional protective material is needed.

Shockingly, because of the empty space issue, the equivalent of about 61 million TEU containers are being shipped unnecessarily each year.

Developing packaging that fits your product well and is easy to open solves both the empty space and the void fill problem. The packaging experts at DS Smith developed a solution that does just that: Made2fit.

Sam Jones
Sam Jones Sustainability Manager Sam.Jones@dssmith.com

About the expert

Sam is responsible for oversight of the Group sustainability strategy and its ongoing development and coordination through the Group Sustainability Committee. Complimentary to this he is responsible for leveraging DS Smith's sustainability credentials to maximise value with internal and external stakeholders, including customers, investors, employees and regulators, capturing the value and benefits for the business.