From Bubble Wrap to mushrooms: One company’s journey to package things better


Since Bubble Wrap’s arrival in 1960, new innovations such as mushroom-based packaging, right, have chipped away at its place in the packaging world. Now Bubble Wrap is less than 15 percent of Sealed Air’s product care business. (Sealed Air/Ecovative)

It’s rare to hear people talk with passion about packaging materials. Boxes, tape and plastic foam are all super boring. But Bubble Wrap? It’s the rock star of the packaging world with an unmatched cultural cachet.

Good luck finding another packaging material that has an appreciation day in its honor. Students at a New Jersey high school set a world record for the most people simultaneously popping Bubble Wrap. The joy just bursts from this video:

A college professor even published research in an academic journal on the stress-relieving properties of Bubble Wrap. An excerpt: “Subjects reported feeling significantly more energized, less tired, and more calm after popping the capsules.” And there’s a Web site where you can virtually pop Bubble Wrap.

While popping Bubble Wrap is as fun as ever, greener and more economical solutions are replacing the beloved form of plastic. Bubble Wrap has shrunk to less than 15 percent of the product care sales of Sealed Air, the company that invented Bubble Wrap in the 1960.

Bubble Wrap has its drawbacks. The equipment to make it is incredibly large and made for high-volume production, so Sealed Air ships Bubble Wrap to its customers. Because it is full of air, Bubble Wrap takes up a significant amount of space while being shipped and while sitting in customers’ warehouses.

New Air I.B., an alternative to Bubble Wrap, is shipped more efficiently to customers because it isn’t inflated until a customer wants it to be. Notice here how the rolls inflate:

(Sealed Air)
(Sealed Air)

“Bubble Wrap is high performance but you don’t want to ship it a long way and store a lot in inventory,” explained Ryan Flanagan, Sealed Air’s president of product care.

While NewAir I.B. has been a successful breakthrough, and you might see it in your next Amazon delivery, there’s one thing it lacks. You can’t pop it. In a marketing gimmick New Air IB’s European division had a strongman pull a massive truck over it.

(Sealed Air)
(Sealed Air)

Nothing popped. The cells are interconnected, making them almost impossible to pop without a sharp object. In the packaging industry, fun is the casualty of innovation.  After all, Sealed Air is in the packaging business, not the entertainment business.

It has long sought sustainable, economical ways to protect shipments. In the ’70′s Sealed Air began using foam cushioning for packages. The ’90′s and the 2000s brought inflatable solutions. Watch how the inflation process secures these items in place:

(Sealed Air)
(Sealed Air)

The goal is sustainability. The plastic and air will take up less space in landfills than say foam peanuts.

“You get more performance for less total material,” Flanagan said. “Everything we’ve ever introduced has brought that characteristic of more performance for less input.” Inflatable packaging materials are appealing as the costs of plastics rise and consumers become more interested in environment-friendly products.

Sealed Air took a big step down that line in 2012 when it licensed the technology of Ecovative, which makes biodegradable packaging out of mushroom roots and agricultural waste such as corn stalks and husks. The ingredients are mixed and poured into the desired mold where they grow over the course of several days.

“We’re open to any technology that has the potential to improve care of packaging,” Flanagan said.

For now Sealed Air is using the the mushroom-based packaging for heavy, dense products such as pumps and gears. Who knows what will come next. Just don’t count on it making a fun popping sound.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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