Despite repeatedly being called out for the practice, online stores like Amazon are still occasionally getting caught shipping tiny items in comically oversized boxes. It’s wasteful, it reduces the amount of cargo a truck can carry, and it inspired 3M to redesign bubble wrap to greatly reduce the packaging needed to ship smaller items.
Plastic envelopes lined with bubble wrap are often a better alternative to shipping items in a cardboard box, but even then they’re only available in a limited set of sizes and often require additional padding or stuffing so objects placed inside don’t move around while in transit. 3M has arguably created a better alternative with its new Flex & Seal Shipping Rolls. The material is like a padded shipping envelope that comes deconstructed; requiring the shipper to do all of the assembly. But it allows for the creation of custom padded envelopes that are only as large as needed. And in addition to eliminating cardboard, foam peanuts, and inflatable cushioning bags for shipping many items, it also frees users from the tyranny of wrangling a tape gun.
The material is made up of three layers including a tough outer wrap that’s tear- and water-resistant, a middle layer of bubble wrap cushioning, and an adhesive liner that’s designed to only stick to itself. When users wrap an object in the material they can create a tight surrounding seal so there’s no risk of it sliding around.
The Flex & Seal material isn’t going to solve all of the environmental woes when it comes to shipping objects all over the world which is a part of the modern economy that’s only going to expand until replicators are created. The plastics used are recyclable (made from the same material as plastic shopping bags) but need to be processed separately from the materials most homes and offices recycle on a daily basis like pop bottles. So there’s added inconvenience for people wanting to dispose of them responsibly. 3M also recommends the material only be used to ship objects that are no heavier than three pounds. That certainly limits its use, but 3M claims that 60 percent of shipped products weigh less than that, so despite those limitations, it could still have a big impact overall.
Where the Flex & Seal sheets won’t replace shipping materials like cardboard, however, is when fragile objects that can’t be bent, squished or banged are handed off to shippers like Fedex or UPS. If you’re not comfortable sending something off in a bubble envelope, 3M’s sticky bubble wrap rolls won’t leave you feeling any more confident about a fragile or expensive item arriving at its destination in one safe piece. There’s nothing stopping a shipper from cocooning an item in several layers of this new material, but that kind of defeats most of the benefits it can deliver when it comes to reducing packaging.