What Are the Different Types of Packing Foam?

M.R. Anglin
M.R. Anglin
Polyethylene sheets may be used as packing foam.
Polyethylene sheets may be used as packing foam.

Expanded polystyrene sheets, packing peanuts, foam-in-place and foam-in-bag, and polyethylene sheets are all types of packing foam. Both expanded polystyrene and packing peanuts are made from polystyrene. Foam-in-place and foam-in-bag are made from polyurethane. Polyethylene is available in flexible sheets. Each of these packing foams is best suited to protect as specific type of product during shipping.

Polyethylene foam is sold in rolls and sheets.
Polyethylene foam is sold in rolls and sheets.

Expanded polystyrene (EPS), also called beadboard, is often referred to as Styrofoam™. However, Styrofoam™ is a trademarked product of the Dow Company. As such, it should not be confused with other EPS products. EPS is a lightweight, rigid, plastic packing foam that is made by expanding small polystyrene beads. It has only minimal cushioning properties and is best used when packaging lightweight items.

Polystyrene -- often associated with insulation -- can be used to make packing foam.
Polystyrene -- often associated with insulation -- can be used to make packing foam.

Packing peanuts, also referred to as loose fill, are small, lightweight, peanut shaped packing foam that are designed to interlock when compressed and flow freely when loose. The interlocking shape allows it to cushion the products being shipped. As such, they are used to fill up empty spaces around products being shipped. Packing peanuts cannot keep products in place when they are shipped, and so they should not be used with products that can shift and move in transit. The peanuts can generate static electricity so they should not be used when shipping electronic equipment.

Styrofoam is used by various shipping companies to pack items.
Styrofoam is used by various shipping companies to pack items.

For more shock absorbing power, polyurethane is a versatile packing foam option. Polyurethane can be flexible or rigid and can be made as sheets, as foam-in-place, or as foam-in-bags. When made into sheets, this packing foam can either be made into a soft, flat sheet or into an egg-crate looking sheet. The egg-crate design allows the polyurethane to interlock with itself and provides a cushion for the product to be shipped. The foam also has good resiliency and absorbency and is ideal for packaging light products.

Foam-in-place and foam-in-bag packing foam are used when a snug fit around the product is desired. In these two options, two chemicals are sprayed into the packaging where they react and expand into the polyurethane foam. With foam-in-place, the chemicals are sprayed around the product. It then expands and molds itself into the product’s shape. The polyurethane in foam-in-bags is sprayed into a bag. The bag is then placed around the product where it expands to provide a snug fit.

Furniture is often wrapped using polyethylene. Polyethylene can also be made into an anti-static packing foam which makes it ideal for shipping electronics and computer parts. It is also mold and bacteria resistant. A unique property of polyethylene is that it is tear-resistant in transit but can be easily ripped by human hands. It is also shock absorbent and shatterproof, does not produce dust, and is chemical- and grease-resistant.

Can Packing Foam Be Recycled?

One of the things that prevent people from recycling is the confusion that occurs about which materials can be recycled and which can not. While is important to properly sort materials before recycling, you shouldn't let this hold you back from doing something that benefits the planet by keeping waste out of landfills.

When it comes to packing foam, the first step towards recycling is to determine what kind of material you have. You can use the descriptions in this article to help you identify different packing foams.

Recycling Polystyrene Foam

Polystyrene is the substance used to create most packing peanuts as well as many kinds of packing sheets. This material is also used in take-out boxes and foam egg cartons. While these materials are recyclable, you will need to look into your local recycling program before dumping them in a recycling bin. In many areas, you will need to bring these materials directly to a recycling center to ensure that they are properly sorted and can be used. Consider keeping your polystyrene materials in their own container until you have enough to make the trip worthwhile.

Recycling Polyethylene

Polyethylene is the material that is used in clear plastic packing material, such as bubble wrap and larger air-filled plastic compartments. It is important to pop any air bubbles that may be present before recycling these items. Similar to the polystyrene materials discussed above, you should avoid putting these directly in a recycling bin as they can create problems at the recycling plant. Instead, take them to your local recycling center or to a collection area that gathers plastic bags.

Other Materials

Unfortunately, some types of packing materials, such as polyurethane are not currently good candidates for recycling. While recycling processes are always improving, you may need to look for a special center to send these materials to, upcycle them in some way, or simply throw them away.

Can I Use Packing Foam for Insulation?

Since plastics have a negative impact on the environment, many people are looking for ways to reuse foam packing materials in their homes. One use that has been considered is using foam as a replacement for traditional insulation. While this may work in theory, it is important to consider safety concerns such as whether the foam you want to use is a fire hazard. Make sure to follow any building codes and regulations in your area, and speak with professional contractors if you need help with a specific project.

One potential problem with using packing foam for insulation is that it isn't good at resisting hot temperatures and can melt or lose its shape. This is why you can't microwave foam take-out boxes, and it is a trait that can limit the ways that foam is usable in many projects.

How to Dispose of Packing Foam

Many packing materials take hundreds of years to decompose, making them dangerous to the environment as well as to the wellbeing of both humans and animals. Receiving foam packing is sometimes unavoidable, and while you should recycle it if possible, this is not always doable depending on the type of material and recycling services available where you live.

One thing you can do is save packing materials and reuse them later. This can be as simple as using the same packing peanuts you received in a package when you need to ship something to someone else. You can also consider using them for crafts, upcycling projects, or for practical purposes, such as adding padding to boxes of items you need to move from one location to another.

If you must throw packing foam away, be sure that it makes it into a garbage can that has a secure lid. Light plastics used in foam are prone to getting blown away outdoors. They then become litter that can enter fragile ecosystems and harm animals that eat them. Pull your trashcan into a sheltered area during windy days, and never leave light plastics out in the open air.

The Future of Packing Materials

Due to how difficult they are to recycle and how long they stay in the environment without breaking down, many people are looking for alternatives to the plastic-based packaging that is used today. The state of New York banned polystyrene use in packing and containers at the beginning of 2022, and other areas will likely follow suit. Natural material-based packaging that breaks down more easily and poses less of a threat to the environment presents a promising alternative and will likely be used more in the coming years.

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    • Polyethylene sheets may be used as packing foam.
      By: Dmitry Vereshchagin
      Polyethylene sheets may be used as packing foam.
    • Polyethylene foam is sold in rolls and sheets.
      By: Pavel Parmenov
      Polyethylene foam is sold in rolls and sheets.
    • Polystyrene -- often associated with insulation -- can be used to make packing foam.
      By: brozova
      Polystyrene -- often associated with insulation -- can be used to make packing foam.
    • Styrofoam is used by various shipping companies to pack items.
      By: Josef Binsteiner
      Styrofoam is used by various shipping companies to pack items.