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Void Fill, Cushioning and Protective Packaging: The Basics

Pantero_bubblewrap_207831597.2000colorWhat's the best way to protect products during shipping? Unless your product is highly durable and fits tightly into the shipping box, you'll probably need some void fill, cushioning or protective packaging material to make sure everything arrives intact.

Protective packaging fills several purposes during shipping:

  • It takes up extra space in the box to prevent items from shifting during transit.
  • It cushions items from shocks and protects fragile edges and corners.
  • It protects items from scrapes and scratches.
  • It improves product presentation and provides a better "unboxing" experience.

The right choice in product protection depends on what you are shipping, how much space you need to fill and what kind of functionality you want from your void fill or cushioning material. Here's a rundown of some of the most popular methods and options.

Wrapping Materials

Wrapping is one of the simplest ways to protect fragile items during shipping. Wrapping items in paper, foam or bubble wrap provides cushioning and protects items from scratches, scrapes and dents. Wrapping is a great option for small- to medium-sized, irregularly shaped objects that need a little extra cushioning in the package. It's best for items that fill most (but not all) of the space in the box; if you have a lot of extra space to fill, you may need additional void fill materials to keep items from shifting. Wrapping is generally done by hand and may be somewhat labor-intensive.

You have a lot of options when it comes to wrapping, with varying degrees of cushioning and space-filling functionality.

  • Paper: Paper is a practical and economical choice for wrapping items. Paper is recyclable and often made of recycled materials, so it's a sound selection environmentally, too. Both brown Kraft paper and plain white newsprint are great options. Paper comes in different weights or thicknesses (typically 40 – 60 lb.) and may be purchased in either rolls or precut sheets. For very light cushioning and scratch protection, cap tissue paper is another option.
  • Poly Foam: Poly foam provides a bit more cushioning protection than paper. It's waterproof, too, which can be an advantage for some applications. Poly foam typically comes in rolls with thicknesses ranging from 1/16" to 3/32". The thicker the foam, the more cushioning it provides. Thicker foams are also stiffer, so they may not conform to the shape of an irregular object as well as thinner foams or paper. Poly foam is not recyclable in most cities (though it is highly durable and can usually be reused).
  • Bubble Wrap: Bubble wrap provides the ultimate in wrapping protection. (Plus, as we all know, the bubbles are fun to pop once the package arrives!) Air-filled bubbles cushion and insulate wrapped objects. Bubble wrap comes in rolls that may or may not be pre-perforated. The bubbles themselves range from 3/16" in diameter to ½" in diameter; larger, thicker bubbles offer more cushioning. Bubble wrap can be recycled in some municipalities; consumers may be able to recycle the wrap along with their plastic grocery bags at their local grocery store.
  • Corrugated Wrap: Corrugated materials consist of a fluted (ridged) layer of paper bonded to a layer (or sandwiched between two layers) of flat paper or linerboard. The ridges trap air and provide extra cushioning and shock protection. Single-face corrugated wrap provides more protection than plain paper and is more economical than poly foam. It is also recyclable. It's a great option for layering between fragile items such as plates or for wrapping glassware. It's fairly stiff, though, so it may not be the best choice for highly delicate and irregularly shaped objects.

Loose Fill

Loose fill—epitomized by the ubiquitous packaging peanut—is another popular option for void fill and product protection. Loose fill materials are dumped or pumped into the box to fill up the extra space around the items inside. Loose fill is great when you have a lot of space to fill and items are irregular in shape; the small pieces will conform to the shape of the object(s) and fill all available space in the box.

Whether you love them or love to hate them, packaging peanuts have been widely used in the packaging industry for decades. They are lightweight, economical, and provide effective cushioning for objects with a range of shapes and sizes. On the downside, they take up a LOT of storage room and can be very messy to deal with for both shippers and receivers. Traditional polystyrene peanuts have also come under fire for environmental reasons; some municipalities, most notably San Francisco, have started to ban them. Fortunately, you can now buy biodegradable packaging peanuts made of renewable plant starches. Shredded or crinkled paper is another popular loose fill choice.

When using loose fill, it's important to make sure that you use enough material to completely fill the extra space in the box to minimize shifting. Items may still shift somewhat within the fill, especially if they are heavy. Fragile or delicate items should be wrapped before they are put in the box. One way to reduce shifting is to fill the bottom layer of the box with peanuts first, then place the objects in, and then fill the remainder of the box. You can also layer flat pieces of corrugate above and below the item to further minimize movement.

Other Void Fill Materials

Loose fill isn't the only option when it comes to taking up space. There are a variety of materials that will fill extra space and keep items from shifting around in the box. Most of these materials won't conform as tightly to the shape of the packaged object as loose fill, but they typically offer better protection against movement and shifting. Options include:

  • Crumpled paper: Sometimes, the simplest solution is to simply crumple up some Kraft paper or newsprint and toss it in the box. If you're already using paper to wrap your objects and have just a little bit of space to fill, a few extra sheets crumpled into balls or ropes can do the trick. You can even get special dispensers that pre-crumple the paper for you!
  • Air cushions/air pillows: Air cushions or pillows have become an increasingly popular with large shippers in recent years, and for good reason. Air cushions, such as Storopack's AIRplus® and AIRmove® products, are exceptionally light and economical. The plastic films come flat, so they are easy to store. Air is pumped in between the layers of film, which is then sealed to form the pillow. Pillows can be made in various sizes and shapes. Large air pillows can fill a lot of space with minimal weight and material use.

Blocking and Bracing

Blocking and bracing materials do more than just take up space. They hold items in firmly place in the carton to prevent shifting during transit. Most also provide cushioning to protect items from shock. These materials provide superior protection for heavy objects or especially fragile objects. 

  • Paper padding: Machine-formed paper padding provides superior shock protection, blocking and bracing. Storopack's PAPERplus® paper cushioning systems turn ordinary Kraft paper into durable pads that provide exceptional stability with minimal weight and materials use. Pads come in a variety of shapes and styles for different packaging applications.
  • Moldable foam cushioning: Protective foams, such as Storopack's FOAMplus®, mold to the shape of the objects they are protecting. This provides excellent blocking, bracing and shock protection. As the foam expands, it holds objects immobile to prevent shifting. Foams work by combining two liquid components that, when mixed, expand to 200 times their liquid volume. This minimizes storage concerns and allows package protection to be delivered as needed. Foam may be injected directly into the package or may come in bags or pillows that are placed in the box around the object.

Need Help With Void Fill and Protective Packaging?

Pantero carries a broad range of protective packaging solutions, from Kraft paper to air pillows. We can help you find the best materials for void fill, cushioning, or blocking and bracing to ensure that your products arrive safe and sound. Contact us to learn more.

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