October 23, 2019

The problems with void fill packaging designs


Void fill designs, like packing peanuts and Instapak, are inefficient and unsustainable

The problems with void fill packaging designs – Packaging at a basic level is about adding protective materials around a fragile product to cushion it during transit. Yet despite the e-commerce industry exploding with growth in recent years with new technologies emerging, new transit requirements, and diverse product types – the traditional strategy for product protection remains the same. Just throw a bunch of soft stuff around it and hope it doesn’t break. 

As a result of this oversimplified philosophy, e-commerce businesses suffer massive losses in shipping damage every year. The industry as a whole loses $6 billion annually due to product breakage during transit, according to an AMERIPEN report. PMMI estimates that the cost to an e-commerce business to replace a damaged product is 17 times more than the original cost to ship, as a result of the length and complex maze of transits and distribution centers in the process. Shouldn’t we look to improve upon the outdated ideas about packaging? 


What is void fill packaging? 

Void fill, or loose fill, packaging is the concept of filling the empty space around a product in a corrugated box with cushioning material. Major examples of void fill are expanding foam products like Instapak, air pillows, and the infamous packing peanuts. 

All of these void fillers have serious negative environmental consequences, health risks, and freight inefficiencies. These are due, in part, to their materials, but also because of flaws in the methodology of using void fill packaging. 


Threat to health and safety

Packing peanuts are commonly made from expanded polystyrene (EPS), a plastic foam composed of monomers of styrene. Styrene is known to cause cancer and “has also been linked to nerve damage and hormonal disruption,” states Olga Naidenko, PhD from the Environmental Working Group

On the other hand, Instapak’s foam packaging design allows it to expand to surround a product, filling the space available. However, Instapak utilizes polyurethane foam, which presents serious health concerns – especially for consumers attempting to package products at home. Polyurethane (PU) is a respiratory toxin, which can cause serious breathing issues including asthma. Inhaling PU fumes can also result in nausea, vomiting, and headaches. 

The official Safety Data Sheet for Instapak includes precautionary statements including, “Wear eye or face protection,” “Use only outdoors,” and “in case of inadequate ventilation wear respiratory protection.” Instapak also uses the hazard signal word “Danger,” meaning “if the danger is not avoided, it will cause death or serious injury,” according to OSHA



In addition to health and safety concerns, packing peanuts present a variety of problems regarding efficiency and their environmental impact. Made from polystyrene (EPS), foam peanuts are nearly impossible to get rid of, as they cannot be recycled or reused effectively. They also complicate the transit process, adding cleanup costs at packing stations along the transit chain.


New attempts to improve the sustainability of foam packing peanuts have fallen short. Packaging Digest remarks that “all these innovations in packing peanuts are much like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” No matter what, “loose fill of any variety is still messy and lags behind competitive products.” 

Instapak void filling foam and other similar void filler solutions also fail when it comes to sustainability due to the material and methodology. Instapak void filler cannot be reused because of how it forms within each package and polyurethane foam is still extremely difficult to recycle. 


Reducing size improves everything else

The biggest issue with these void fill packaging solutions, however; is that their approach naturally results in excess material than is required. This ruins any efforts to improve sustainability, makes their designs inefficient for transit shipping, and adds hidden costs to the freight process. 


Packing peanuts and Instapak, as well as air pillows and other void fillers, take up massive amounts of space and force companies to increase the overall volumetric size of their packaging by significant amounts. According to a Parcel article, “a pre-expanded product obviously, takes up as much as twenty-five times the amount of space, or more” as compared to more optimized packaging solutions. Cutting down on volumetric size has a huge positive impact on freight efficiency, as it allows more packages on every pallet, container, and truck along the transit chain. 

Reducing the amount of packaging material also dramatically improves the environmental impact of each product shipped. Not only does it cut back significantly on the amount of waste that burdens recycling centers or flows into landfills, but shipping empty space accounts for 134 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. “The primary loser from void-fill usage,” states Lil Packaging, “is the environment, with most void-fill ending up in the bin and landfill or worse.”

In addition to improving freight efficiencies and reducing the environmental impact, replacing void fillers reduces shipping damage, solving a huge problem for e-commerce vendors. Despite using massive amounts of excess material, void fill packaging pales in comparison to product-optimized solutions when it comes to protective performance. 


How do you improve on void fill? 

The answer is education. Companies can improve the health and safety, environmental impact, freight efficiency, and protective performance of their packaging by switching from void fillers to optimized packaging solutions that take into account all relevant factors. 

EPE USA seeks to understand the entire life cycle of a product in order to design optimized solutions that have proven to reduce damage during shipping considerably, improve freight costs with sleeker designs that utilize less material, and lower your environmental impact with reusable and recyclable materials. 

All of these elements combine to work together as well. By providing optimized designs specifically for a product’s transit process, EPE removes the “air” in packages, which maximizes transit efficiency and reduces carbon emissions. Additionally, cutting down on product breakage results in fewer products shipped back and forth along the transit chain. 

Making the switch to optimized solutions allows companies to maximize freight efficiency, minimize shipping damage, and lower their overall environmental impact. 

Talk to one of our packaging experts today about how our optimized designs can improve upon your void fill packaging.