The Perils of Packaging

By far the biggest hassle involved in getting our products to market has been the packaging. I thought I’d share some of what we did in case anyone else out there in the independent design world is going through some of the same issues. And of course, so our customers can see what is going into their products. We designed Key to be an easily shipped, affordable, environmentally sound product, and getting the packaging right was a critical element. It was also surprisingly difficult. Some of the things we learned:

1. Boxes are expensive, and they don’t have your size. Stock carton sizes tend to be more or less cubic, and we are shipping things that are thin, rectangular, and large. That means a custom box. As you might expect, custom boxes are very expensive unless you order a lot. So now we have enough boxes to last a long time. Also, box makers (at least the ones around here), don’t offer a product with a guaranteed level of recycled content. Apparently, brown kraft cardboard typically has anywhere from 30% to 75% recycled content, but it varies all the time according to what they happen to be using. There is an opportunity here for a forward-thinking packaging company. We would have been happy to pay even more for a 100% recycled carton, but it’s not an option. Somebody really needs to start a “green packaging” company and put all this stuff in one place. We ended up using Tharco in Denver for our cartons. To save a couple bucks we decide to use stick on labels rather than custom print the carton itself.

2. The package has to be bigger than you think. The standard way to package furniture is to wrap the pieces in thin foam sheet, then brace the outside with expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) blocks or sheets. I initially designed a carton with a half inch of space around the outside for foam sheet, but then I was told that UPS won’t accept a damage claim unless the package has 2″ of space all around the product. Having experienced my share of damaged furniture, I made the box bigger. That made it more expensive, and gave me a much bigger void area to fill, which posed other problems.

3. Petroleum based foam is extremely hard to avoid. We really didn’t want to use any plastics anywhere in this product, but there are very few suitable alternatives to EPS (commonly known as Styrofoam) for heavy objects like furniture. It’s important to protect the furniture during shipping: nobody wants to send back damaged goods, and when you break something in shipping, you’ve just wasted all the energy and resources that went into the product. Cornstarch peanuts are easy to find, but if you need sheets, we found exactly one alternative to petrochemical foam: Green Cell (also sold under some other brand names), which is also made from corn. It’s a pretty cool product: it’s compostable, water soluble, and doesn’t use a lot of energy to make. The downside (apart from the fact that it uses corn, which is too big a discussion to get into here) is that it’s extremely expensive. It’s also hard to get if you’re just a small user.

One of the things we need is a soft foam to go in between the pieces in the carton so they don’t slide around and scratch each other. Normally you would use thin polyethylene (PE) foam here; it’s soft, non-abrasive, and it doesn’t allow things to slide around. We wanted to use the Green Cell foam wrap between individual pieces, but it is 5 times more expensive than conventional PE foam. And we’re not talking about 50 cents versus 10 cents, switching just the thin foam wrap to Green Cell would require us to raise the retail price of a Key module by at least $35. That’s for something that almost nobody will even notice, and most people will toss in the trash anyway.

We are now looking at something called indented kraft paper as an interleaving (like this). It is 100% recycled, and recyclable, and it’s cheap enough (about the same price as PE foam). However, we’re not sure if it’s going to scratch our finishes, or allow things to move around too much in the carton. Paper can be pretty abrasive. If it passes testing, we’ll use it. If it doesn’t, we’ll keep looking.

For the cushioning around the outside envelope of the package, the thick Green Cell was just too soft to use, and of course, too expensive. They have a higher density version, but it’s even more expensive. Instead we are looking to use 2″ thick cardboard honeycomb (like this) for our exterior bracing, but so far we can’t find any here locally. We will probably just have to go for it and have a year’s supply shipped to us. This stuff is of course fully recyclable, although like the cardboard for the box, nobody sells one that’s made from fully recycled content.

So, to make a very long story short, for now we are still using EPS foam blocking and PE foam wraps. We hate to do it, but that was the only way we could ship anything. Some places do recycle the stuff (EPS recycling sites & a pathetic list of PE foam recycling sites), and we hope you have somebody near you.

Finally, I never would have guessed this at the start, but our packaging currently makes up over 10% of our total product cost. If we used the expensive “green” alternatives, it would be up over 15%. Nobody ever bought a piece of furniture because it had a cool shipping carton, so any extra money we spend to try to do things a little more sustainably isn’t really recoverable. If these other alternatives work out, I think we’ll be getting to a good balance of sustainability and price, but it certainly isn’t easy. You can see why most people don’t even bother to try.

UPDATE (9/26/2008): We’ve managed to eliminate all plastic from our packaging, at a modest increase in cost. Check it out.