Manufacturers’ Guide to Packaging Materials During COVID-19

Answered October 28 2020

Deciding on shipping materials

COVID-19 poses and will continue to pose major challenges to packing and shipping industries around the world. The increased demand, shortages from different countries, and an expectation of fast delivery times both creates wonderful opportunities and difficulties for companies of all sizes. One of the biggest challenges is packaging materials. 

What kinds of packaging materials are available? Which ones are safe to use in COVID-19 hot spots? What can and can’t be safely used, and how should companies rise to these challenges? 

Here is a breakdown of the situation as a whole, what kind of packaging materials are available today, and their relation to this global pandemic that we are all facing. We’ll also cover the importance of using the correct materials and alternatives to materials that may be unsafe during these times. 

Let’s get started. 

An Overview of the Situation

The packing industry is worth $900 billion a year. COVID-19 has not put a significant dent into this, due to the heavy increase in demand for products to be shipped. While some industries are facing reduced or lowered inventory, this has a relatively small impact on the shipping industry as a whole. 

The major challenge that the shipping industry faces today are increased health and safety concerns, and a rise in single-use packing materials due to worries of transmitting COVID. The industry as a whole needs to pivot to meet the demand while at the same time remaining fluid enough to adapt the consumers’ needs for sanitary packaging of all kinds. 

Before, packaging materials revolved around three fundamental needs: availability, costs, and performance. Now, the companies that meet today’s challenges must also consider: 

  • Sustainability narrative 
  • Hygiene considerations
  • E-commerce and direct-to-consumer needs
  • Shipping-ready design. 

In a nutshell, that’s the situation today. In order to solve the problems and challenges, let’s first examine the types of packaging materials that are available, the considerations that manufacturers should take into account while selecting this material, and how they can meet the needs of the world during these times of pandemic. 

What Types of Packaging Materials Are Available?

That being said, the type of packaging materials is governed by any other considerations. In order to provide a detailed analysis, we will also take into consideration how a design would show on the package, the environmental impact, its typical weight and dimensions, how easy/hard it is to secure the material, any restrictions currently associated with it, available suppliers for it, and the direct and indirect cost. 

Packaging materials that are usually available include: 

  • Paper
  • Plastic
  • Corrugated  
  • Wood
  • Glass
  • Metal
  • Foil
  • Foam
  • Combinations of these materials

Let’s break this down and explore the benefits, disadvantages, and considerations of each type of material. 

Paper

Paper packaging is fairly straightforward. It can range from sheets of brown paper to large boxes, reinforced with additional materials. Many countries require paper packaging materials to be partially made of recycled materials, and it’s simple to reuse or recycle the material when it’s not needed anymore. 

Some advantages of paper packaging are:

  • Easy branding
  • Wide availability
  • Few restrictions
  • Pairs well with other materials and types of packaging
  • Built-in sustainability/narrative

That being said, paper packaging can be fragile and unsuitable for medium to heavy-duty packing. Depending on the kind used, it does not hold up well to damp and wet conditions and may fall apart or otherwise expose the contents inside. 

In a nutshell, paper packaging works well in a small to medium set of circumstances. 

Plastic

Plastic is one of the most popular packing materials around the world for several very good reasons. It’s flexible, adaptable, and easy to use. Additionally, it’s secure, widely accepted, and can be used in almost any application, from food to highly toxic materials. 

However, plastic faces a bad reputation in many different ways. It’s hard to reuse or recycle. It’s well-documented that plastic is a major pollutant. Direct-to-consumer brands may face negative backlash from concerned consumers.  And it’s simply not as sustainable in the long run as some alternatives are.

Companies that want to invest in the future of sustainability have some plastic options available to them, but they are limited and hard to use.  

Corrugated  

Corrugated cardboard and other materials combine the best of two worlds, especially when used with paper or other sustainable materials. The added structural support allows much greater flexibility of use while still providing a way to use alternative materials instead of plastic. 

While most consumers are familiar with corrugated cardboard, other materials include plastic and lightweight fiber. Corrugated packaging is especially common in smaller companies and direct-to-consumer businesses due to its ease of use and accessibility. 

Wood

Wood packaging is a specialized type that is typically used for foods, such as wine and quality cheese. It may also be used in a wide variety of luxury packaging, from small jewelry items all the way to top-of-the-line machines and appliances. 

Company brands on wood packaging showcase a clear and sophisticated image that can range from quirky to elegant. They assist in providing a customer experience that isn’t as available via plastic or paper packaging. Finally, wood boxes, crates, and containers announce a sustainability narrative right out of the gate to consumers.   

Glass

This packaging is typically reserved for packing foods, liquids, or other items into a container that is then packed into a larger case before shipping. Glass is especially useful for smaller companies because of its relative durability and ease of branding. 

Depending on the type of glass container used, they are easy to sanitize and reuse in other applications. While glass containers are generally more expensive than plastic or paperboard, they are perfect for applications where other materials are not an option. 

Metal

Similar to glass containers, metal containers are typically used to store products. Metal may also be used in large shipping containers, such as trailers and train cars. Due to the higher costs and reduced flexibility, metal containers are uncommon. When used, they provide great branding opportunities and more memorable customer experience.

Foil

Foil packaging is typically seen in pouches, bags, and tubes. In some cases, it’s also used as a novelty packing item. Foil most commonly provides a waterproof coating around foodstuffs and medicine. It can easily be sanitized and labeled with a minimum of bother or special equipment, though specialized tools may have to be purchased in order to properly seal the pouches. 

As a rule, foil is best used to pack smaller, specialty items such as teas and baking mixes. 

Foam

Foam packaging comes in many different shapes and sizes. Some of the most common kinds include:

  • Small pieces, such as peanuts 
  • Larger, custom pieces made to fit
  • Sheets
  • Boxes
  • Wrapping material

Due to its porous nature, foam packing is typically used inside of another outer layer, such as cardboard or plastic. It’s also hard to properly sanitize or brand without specialized equipment. That being said, it’s cheap, easy to find, and very easy to use. 

Combinations of These Materials

Finally, all of the above materials are used in combination with each other. For example, a wood crate probably contains boxes of some sort, which may be filled with foam or paper. It’s always a good idea to diversify packing materials when possible, as it allows for greater flexibility and ease of packing. 

Depending on the combination of materials used, branding and sanitization abilities will vary. 

That concludes this overview of the kinds of packaging used today. Now let’s take a look at these typical packaging material options and their relation to COVID-19.

Typical Packaging Materials and Their Relation to COVID

Let’s start with one major fact: we are living in a world of uncertainty when it comes to COVID-19 and the ways in which it’s transmitted. While the below checklist is formulated with the research available, much of this is still under development, and is subject to change as more facts come to light and more research into this global pandemic is accomplished.

With that being said, what are the criteria that should be considered regarding shipping material and potential COVID-19 transmission? Our checklist is based on five major principles:

  1. Availability today
  2. Sanitation capability 
  3. Sustainability/recyclable  
  4. Ease of branding
  5. Cost

Other factors that we did not touch on in the checklist include flexibility for different items and overall ease of use. 

  • Plastic
    • Pros
      • Easy identification/branding of products
      • Wide availability
      • Easy to sanitize 
    • Cons
      • Less sustainable
      • High ratio of single-use to multiple-use, leading to much lower sustainability
  • Paper and paper-based materials
    • Pros
      • Recyclable and sustainable
      • Generally available 
    • Cons
      • Does not hold up to heavy sanitizing
  • Wood
    • Pros
      • Sustainable
      • Established
      • Well-known
    • Cons
      • Limited availability
      • Hard to thoroughly sanitize
      • Expensive and may be impractical
  • Metal and glass
    • Pros
      • Very easily sanitized
      • Commonly used
    • Cons
      • Limited availability 
      • Smaller range of applications compared to other packing materials
  • Combination packing
    • Pros
      • Wide range of flexibility
      • Readily available 
      • Widely accepted 
    • Cons
      • May not be able to sanitize thoroughly
      • May suffer from limited supplies

The Importance of Using the Right Packaging Material

Now that the different types of packing material have been covered, how do companies choose the right packaging material for their products? There are many different considerations which include:

  • Cost
  • Products being shipped
  • Company budget
  • Package audience
  • Availability of materials
  • Ability to brand the shipping container
  • Needed functions
  • Shipping concerns
  • Reducing waste
  • And more

Briefly put, the difference between the right packaging and the wrong packaging is the difference between success and failure. What’s suitable for one parcel is not at all suitable for a large shipment and vice versa. 

While this seems simple, in practice it’s much harder to predict and deliver the right materials to facilities that pack and deliver goods. Here are some simple best practices for selecting packaging material that meets your company needs while also providing the appropriate customer experience. 

Best Practices for Selecting Packaging Material

The four best practices for selecting packaging material are:

  1. Company budget
  2. Items in question
  3. Customers and their experience
  4. Any shipping concerns that you or the customer may have

The first best practice is to consider your company budget. Some budgets make certain materials, such as wood and glass, impossible to sustain over a long period of time. On the other hand, the overall packaging material cost may be negligible if a company is shipping high-end luxury goods, such as designer clothing or jewelry.

Next up is the items in question. Are the items perishable? How quickly are they needed? What kind of shipping restrictions may be attached to them? For example, a pallet of nuts that are destined for a grocery store supply bin is a very different thing to ship than a box of specialized books to a medical school. This will also play directly into your customers and their experience of the product, particularly for direct-to-consumer brands.

The third point is the customer experience. Is it important for your customers to get the items in question quickly? How much branding is needed or wanted? Is the outward appearance of the packaging important, like in many smaller shops, or is it inconsequential, such as boxes of inventory to a large chain of stores? 

Finally, make sure to address any shipping concerns that may be attached to the items in question. These can include but are not limited to:

  • Customs
  • Perishability
  • Durability
  • Time constraints
  • General demand
  • Supply

A Brief Look at Shipping Container Interior Packaging 

One wide topic that falls under packing and shipping material is shipping container interior packaging. Industries face billions of dollars of losses from improperly packed containers. While this is a large topic all on its own, it’s important to acknowledge this branch of shipping material and prove a brief outline of interior packaging in general. 

The best way of thinking about shipping container packaging is to work within the guidelines provided. These guidelines may be from government organizations, recommendations from the shipping container creators, and/or general industry knowledge. It’s highly situational to the products in question, the countries in question if shipping internationally, and many, many more factors. 

At the end of the day, it’s going to depend on your unique situation and needs.

A Final Summary of the Situation  

Shipping as a whole in a COVID world is a strange field for everyone. Priorities have shifted, supply chains are disrupted, and consumer demand is high. Facility maintenance has dramatically increased, and preventive maintenance is primarily focused on safety for everyone concerned.

Companies, facilities, and everyone shipping and receiving parcels should be aware of the options and make the best judgments for their own situations. One package at a time can be just what’s needed as we all, as people, work together through these uncertain times. 

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