3M invents an ‘outside the box’ shipping idea

July 30, 2019

Nearly 2 billion Americans (1.92 billion, according to Hosting Facts) will buy something online in 2019—and that means that roughly 2 billion cardboard boxes will arrive at U.S. homes this year; carrying a variety of smallish items that will be stuffed safely into place in biggish shipping containers with wasteful plastic fillers.

And since the most popular items to buy online are pieces of clothing and fashion accessories, chances are that many of these boxes will be used again, for returns.

But now, all of that’s about to change. Just as the Palm Pilots of the 1990s disappeared in favor of smartphones at the turn of the century, our conventional packing materials are about to see a transformation.

The Minnesota-based materials company. 3M—which to date has, perhaps been best-known for its lines of Scotch tape and other tapes, as well as Post-It notes— is releasing a new type of packaging that requires no tape on the outside and no filler materials. What’s more, the new packaging can be customized to fit any object under three pounds (which, 3M says, accounts for about 60% of all items that are bought online and shipped).

Indeed, 3M claims that the material, called the Scotch Flex & Review Seal Shipping Roll, can:

  • Reduce the time needed to pack items for shipping
  • Cut back on the amount of packaging materials required for each shipment (with no need for tape or fillers), and
  • Slash the amount of physical storage space needed in ground and air vehicles just to accommodate the packages.

According to a report by Fast Company, the new roll is made out of three layers of different plastics developed by 3M—among them::

  • A gray, internal adhesive layer that sticks to itself (you’ll see why in a moment);
  • A middle cushioning layer that seems similar to bubble wrap in the way that it protects items during shipping; and
  • A tougher outside layer that is tear- and water-resistant.

The rolls are available in assorted sizes, almost like wrapping paper: 10-foot, 20-foot, and 40-foot rolls are available now; with prices ranging from $12.99 to $48.99, and a 200-foot bulk role will be available in August.

To use the Flex & Seal, you just place your item on the sticky gray side of the material, fold over enough material to encapsulate your item, and press the adhesive sides together to seal it up. The gray side of the packaging will stick to itself, and not the object you want to ship, and 3M says the seal is robust enough to stay in place during shipping—no tape required.

After about 30 seconds, during which you can reposition the item if you didn’t seal it to your liking the first time, the adhesive gets so strong that you have to tear the plastic a bit if you want to pull it apart. That protects your package from tampering, while making sure it’s easy enough to tear open or cut with scissors on the other side.

The Flex & Seal is one way that 3M is trying to get in on the gold rush of the on-demand economy. The U.S. Postal Service handled more than 6 billion packages in 2018, and UPS recently reported net income of $1.69 billion in the second quarter of 2019, up from $1.49 billion during the second quarter in 2018.

When 3M started doing ethnographic research to understand the problems these merchants had, the team found that people were so accustomed to thinking shipping had to be done using boxes, filler, and tape that they didn’t even see it as a problem—just a necessary evil. “It was the bane of their existence,” Remi Kent, who oversees business globally for 3M’s Post-it Notes and Scotch Brands, told Fast Company. “But they didn’t know of any other alternative. They’d have up to 10 steps for preparing, packing, and shipping.”

On top of the manual labor of shipping lots of products, the rise of fast delivery has also raised consumers’ expectations for small brands, which are now up against the likes of Amazon. “[The online economy] . . . has changed the expectations on both ends, whether you’re an online marketplace owner and small business and you’re responsible for sending, but also the consumer expectations around how and when you expect to receive [packages],” Kent says.

The Flex & Seal is recyclable—it’s made of the same material as disposable plastic bags. But similar to plastic bags, the only way to recycle it is to take it to certain retail stores and recyclers, which might be able to include it in their plastic bag recycling program. That means you can’t toss it in your recycling bin with old milk cartons and empty soda cans. Compared to cardboard boxes, which can be easily recycled, that’s a hassle most consumers likely won’t bother with. Kent recognizes this is a problem, and says the team is working on making it easier to recycle. “We’re looking at how could we change the construction of the material choices so it becomes easier to recycle at your home,” she says. 

Research contact: @FastCompany

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