INSIGHT: In praise of Bubble Wrap

29 January 2010 16:47  [Source: ICIS news]

By Brian Ford

Golden days for Bubble WrapHOUSTON (ICIS news)--Roughly half a century ago, two inventors in Hawthorne, New Jersey, perfected a means of sandwiching air bubbles between layers of polyethylene (PE) to create a new form of protective packaging, now known as Bubble Wrap.

How long it took for somebody to start compulsively popping those bubbles is anybody’s guess.

Sealed Air, the company that makes the packaging material, this week celebrated its golden anniversary with a one-day limited run of golden Bubble Wrap at its plant at Saddle Brook, New Jersey.

Sealed Air has parlayed its packaging products into a $4.2bn (€3bn)/year business. The materials are used in an array of food, industrial, medical, and consumer applications.

Plastics as a US packaging material are expected to make inroads at the expense of paper and paperboard through 2010, according to a Freedonia Group study. Plastics will increase their share of poundage to 53% in 2010 in markets where plastic and paper compete as packaging materials, according to the study.

US paper/plastics packaging demand in competitive markets is expected to be 25.7bn lbs, or 51.4% of a 50bn lb (23,000 tonnes) total paper/plastics market this year, according to the study.

US plastic film demand is forecast to grow by 2.6% annually to 7.3m tonnes in 2012, with polypropylene (PP) film expected to show the strongest growth at 3.4%, according to the consultants.

Low density polyethylene (LDPE), linear low density polyethylene (LLDPE) and ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) will together account for 4.8m tonnes, or 66%, of projected film demand by 2012, they say.

LLDPE is forecast to strengthen its position as the leading film resin, with demand growing to 3.5m tonnes in 2012.

But cushioned packaging wasn’t the original intended purpose of Bubble Wrap, according to company lore. Its two inventors originally developed it as a product they hoped to market as textured wallpaper.

The textured wallpaper concept was not a success, but inventors Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding did have some luck in marketing the material as a greenhouse insulator.

“Legend goes that it was not until Chavannes was on an airplane over Newark Airport that the ‘eureka’ moment happened,” according to Sealed Air.

“As the plane descended, Chavannes noted that the billowy clouds appeared to be cushioning the plane,” and realised the material would be better than abrasive paper and old newspapers that had traditionally been used as cushioning for fragile items, according to the company.

The inventors raised $9,000 to fund a developmental production line and incorporated Sealed Air in 1960.

It wasn’t easy to develop the packaging material, according to the company, as PE is a porous material and can easily leak air, limiting its ability to serve as a cushion for very long.

Sealed Air started using a started using a Saran coating to seal the air in the bubbles, but eventually developed came up with a proprietary method of encapsulating a retention barrier in the polyethylene during the extrusion process.

The venerable product is now something of a 'pop' icon, with Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day being celebrated internationally each year. The UK’s Daily Mail reported that Britain’s most accident-prone street (Somerville Road, Worcester - just in case you want to avoid that area) was blanketed this week with 1,500 square metres of the packaging in order to warn drivers of dangerous conditions.

The company also hosts an annual contest for students in grades five through eight to come up with new uses for the product. Entries have ranged from a “personal swing thing” for children with movement disorders to an insulated bird house.

($1 = €0.71)

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By: Brian Ford
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