Quick Hits: Ditch the Box? 3M Invents New Packaging Option

Say goodbye to packaging peanuts and tape.

Over the last 100 years, one of the most overlooked, but crucial elements of any manufacturing supply chain is boxes. Specifically, cardboard boxes. Whether you’re Amazon, or Bob’s Discount Pet Supplies, cardboard boxes are literally the default way of packaging your products for transport.

But ever since manufacturers have been using boxes, there’s been the issue of wasted space and the need to add material to secure the product. Due to their square or rectangular shape, many types of products only occupy a small portion of the box they’re in. This is especially true amid the rapid rise of e-commerce. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opened a box from an online order and just shook my head at how much space was wasted shipping one or two small items.

The folks over at 3M are tackling these issues in the form of a new packaging product that is, let’s say, outside the box. Last summer, the conglomerate’s Scotch Brand introduced its Flex & Seal Shipping Rolls, which are marketed as making shipping easier, especially for small businesses.

The shipping rolls are made out of three different layers of plastic developed by 3M — an internal adhesive layer that sticks to itself, a middle cushioning layer similar to bubble wrap, and a rugged outside layer that is tear- and water-resistant. Together, the rolls allow a user to place any object less than 3 pounds inside the sticky side, fold over enough of the roll to envelop it and press the adhesive side together to form an enclosed package.

According to 3M, once sealed, the material is strong enough to stay in place during shipping, so no tape is required. Once sealed, you have about 30 seconds to reposition the item if you’d like, after which point the adhesive gets too strong to adjust without damaging it. This makes the package protected from tampering, while being easy enough to cut with scissors or tear open.

Just like wrapping paper, the rolls come in different sizes. As of mid-January, it’s available in 10, 20, 50 and 200 foot rolls.

3M promotes the Flex & Seal shipping rolls as saving businesses time on their manual packaging operations, which can involve finding the right-sized box, adding packaging peanuts or bubble wrap and closing the boxes with tape.

One of the big draws of cardboard boxes is that they are easily recyclable. And while Flex & Seal is recyclable, it’s limited in the way that plastic shopping bags are, in that only certain retail stores and recyclers can take them. 3M has said they’re working on making the material more eco-friendly.

But where Flex & Seal lacks in recyclability, it makes up for in space-saving. 3M touts that unlike carboard boxes, shipping companies would be able to fit more this new type of package in a single truck, which would make such shipping supply chains more efficient and could potentially reduce emissions.

Flex & Seal isn’t the first product aimed at providing an alternative to boxes. Amazon has been using mailer bags for several years, and other shipping supplies providers have their own plastic and polyurethane bags that are quite similar in how they’re used. But Flex & Seal looks to be the first recyclable option meant for businesses to use for their own shipping.

More in Supply Chain