Five years ago Emory University physics professor Sidney Perkowitz estimated in his book Universal Foam that each year enough packing peanuts are manufactured to cover all of Manhattan under three inches of polystyrene.
Today peanuts are still falling all over Manhattan and the country as a whole. Californians reportedly don’t like them, but consumers in other markets apparently don’t care enough to complain about the messy polystyrene pellets.
“I know that a lot of people are trying to get away from the peanuts, but it’s a cost-effective solution, and I think that’s probably why you’re still seeing it hanging around,” says David Gealy, a senior systems consultant for Forte Industries, a distribution consultancy based in Mason, OH. “When it comes down to it, you’ve got to justify the equipment purchase and the change in operation if you’re going to change your dunnage approach.”
Even Bill Armstrong, technical development manager for Sealed Air Corp., the Danbury, CT-based firm that manufactures air pillows and Bubble Wrap, acknowledges that the curly little bits of polystyrene are still a serious contender in the dunnage world. But it’s not because people like them, he insists. “Most people don’t use peanuts because they want to — most people use peanuts because it’s cheap and easy,” Armstrong says.
To succeed against a product like that, competitors have had to come up with something that is just as cheap and easy, or at least provides more value — and Armstrong thinks some vendors have. Peanut manufacturers have “stayed static if you will — a little pun there — as the rest of the industry has grown and developed and tried to address more of the total packaging issues than just ‘we’ve got a cheap filler,’” he says.
One of the latest alternatives from Sealed Air is Instapak, a kind of Bubble Wrap that can be inflated with a 4″ × 4″ machine right in the packing facility. Unlike the individually sealed bubbles or the larger pillows Sealed Air also sells, the inflatable parts of an Instapak surface look more like the tubes of an air mattress. The new material inflates from a 0.04″ film to a 0.9″ bubble, a full 0.4″ more than the biggest Bubble Wrap. It’s a bit more expensive than conventional Bubble Wrap but takes up much less space in the distribution center and provides nearly twice as much cushioning, Armstrong says.
A new wrinkle on an old strategy, crinkled paper, is also reportedly growing in popularity. Gealy says that he is seeing more high-speed paper-crinkling machines, as well as sprayed-in foam, in use these days.
It may be a bit early, however, to send the peanut to the ash heap of packing history. For the past 16 years, some peanut makers have fought back against what they see as an unfair characterization of peanuts as environmentally unfriendly through their own organization, the Plastic Loose Fill Council.
Among other activities, the council sponsors a Peanut Hotline and a Website, www.loosefillpackaging.com, that tells people where they can dispose of the generally nondegradable material and recounts the peanut makers’ own version of the story. For instance, the peanut pundits write that loose fill takes 40%-50% less energy to manufacture than a comparable amount of paper. What’s more, the process of manufacturing polystyrene produces between a half and a third as many air emissions as paper manfuacturing and one-third of the waste water, according to the site.
Ken Adams, president of RAPAC in Oakland, TN, a maker of peanuts and other polystyrene products, says the bad environmental reputation of peanuts “is always sort of puzzling to me.” For one thing, he says, while polystyrene doesn’t degrade in conventional landfills, nothing else does either — including paper. For another, that polystyrene doesn’t go anywhere can actually be a good thing. Ground polystyrene is used extensively in nurseries, he says, precisely because the material doesn’t leach and helps percolate the soil. Nevertheless, RAPAC has responded to consumers’ negative perception in several ways, by manufacturing peanuts made of recycled materials and even using an additive to make it possible for peanuts to degrade in soil.
Recently Adams’s firm invented a way of using peanuts that removes what may be the most common objection to them — the mess they create. RAPAC has found a way to take the “loose” out of loose fill, through its new PAD LOC system, a vented bag that encloses a quantity of peanuts.
“It started out as, Let’s figure out a way to reduce the mess, which is the complaint we get about loose fill,” Adams recalls. But as his team tested the new product, they found that they had developed something that was not only tidier but also stronger.
“What happened was that we noticed that the properties of the product actually changed during the process, and it was a much stronger product,” Adams says. A 12″ pad, for instance, filled with only an eighth of a cubic foot of peanuts can support the weight of a 200-lb. man, he says.
Whether you’re shipping a 200-lb. man or some other commodity, peanuts are likely to remain an important packaging choice for some time to come. “For people who really need good speed and some cushioning, there is nothing better than polystyrene,” says Jay Stigler, a Memphis-based sales executive for Storopack, a global packaging firm that sells a full line of packing fillers.
Bennett Voyles is a business and financial writer based in New York.