Plastic packaging products often attract a lot of criticism, but it is not always fair. Inflatable air bags, a cushioning and void fill packaging system developed over the last decade, are a case in point. A polyethylene material, inflatables are easy to recycle, which is a good start. In addition, the bags are constructed from very thin gauge film. As a result, inflatables add as little as possible to the waste or recycling stream as they are used.
Inflatable bagging systems automatically or semi-automatically insert air into plastic bags that are dispensed from a roll. The filled bags continue along the packaging line still on the roll - resembling links of sausage - and are then dispensed and cut off automatically or semi-automatically into the shipping case. The systems are widely used in high volume, moderate to high speed pick and pack distribution center operations.
The inflatable bags offer several environmental advantages. First, the main cushioning and void fill component of these systems is air - certainly a renewable resource. Second, being primarily air, packaging with inflatables reduces shipping weight - often dramatically - and reduces carbon footprints accordingly. Third, the high level of cushioning protection the bags provide allows shippers to reduce shipping case size, further reducing the amount of packaging materials consumed and injected into the waste or recycling stream.
Paper void fill and cushioning materials, while made from renewable resources, are comparatively heavy and bulky. This translates into greater shipping weight and packaging mass. In addition, paper may provide inferior cushioning, necessitating larger shipping cases. Furthermore, if cushioning performance suffers, damage may increase, resulting in returns and replacement shipments which consume further packaging resources and fuel consumption.
This analysis is not meant to assert that inflatables are always the right environmental choice, or that paper packaging materials are always the wrong one. All packaging applications differ in terms of product containment needs, environmental exposure, and shipping and handling conditions. All these factors must be weighed carefully to determine the optimum environmental packaging to be used.