It’s a familiar phenomenon for anyone who regularly shops online: A single tube of toothpaste arrives on the doorstep with lightning speed, but it’s in a box that easily could have housed an entire medicine cabinet’s worth of toiletries.
This is partly a reflection of how retailers have optimised e-commerce for convenience, making the click of a button a viable alternative to a quick trip to the corner store.
Some give consumers the option to consolidate larger orders into fewer boxes, but that typically comes at the expense of speed. The pandemic exacerbated the small-item-in-a-big box problem. As consumers shifted a greater proportion of their spending online, supply chains that were geared towards more pallet-sized packaging struggled to adjust. This created a shortage of smaller cardboard boxes heading into the holiday season last year, according to executives from Veritiv Corp, a provider of packaging and logistics services with more than $6 billion of revenue. E-commerce companies relied more on plastic mailers (which are also easier to cram into delivery trucks), but those have the downside of being more difficult to recycle. You have to take them to a participating facility and rip off the shipping label — a task which is easier said than done.
The packaging industry thinks it now has a
solution: a durable, padded, curbside-recyclable paper mailer. The key is a cushioning material developed by German consumer goods giant Henkel AG through its Epix technology platform. The manufacturing process is proprietary, but it starts with a water-based liquid and uses ingredients commonly found in the glue used to make cardboard boxes.
The result is a puffy filling between the layers of paper. It’s similar in concept to styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. But the Henkel material doesn’t contain any expanded polystyrene, Scott Farber, director of strategic marketing and communications for Henkel’s packaging, consumer goods and construction adhesives business, said in an e-mailed statement. And the cushioning can be separated from the outer paper in the same way that inks and coatings are stripped from cardboard boxes at recycling plants.
The mailers are classified as “widely recyclable” by environmental nonprofit GreenBlue and carry a standardised label from the organisation’s How2Recycle program, Farber said, meaning consumers can just chuck them into the paper recycling bin and be done with it.