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7 ways to ship fragile items in cardboard boxes

No Comments    |    , ,     |    March 5, 2023    |    Reading time 8 minutes
Image of representing shipping fragile items in cardboard boxes - hands holding a fragile glass tumbler, carefully wrapping it in eco-friendly kraft protective paper.

There are few things more fragile than a moth. And back in the 1840s, it was the cardboard box that French silk manufacturers chose to use in order to transport their valuable eggs. Despite other viable packaging methods of the age (glass jars, wooden crates to name but two), it quickly became apparent that this relatively new invention – the cardboard box - was the perfect material for transporting the precious silkworm. It was lightweight, created a cosy environment, yet also allowed air to flow freely meaning that there could be no danger of these temporary homes overheating and going mouldy during transit. Another advantage was that sunlight was blocked out – a big plus if you’re a worm.

Fast forward a hundred years (more or less) and cardboard boxes are still an ideal, environmentally sustainable way to transport delicate items safely and successfully.

Here are The Packaging Club’s seven things to consider when shipping items in cardboard boxes. Some of our suggestions go down the generic route (the use of standard off the shelf cardboard boxes, void fill, wrapping, etc.). Others require a more bespoke and specific approach (cardboard inserts, moulded material, foam). Whichever advice you choose to take, with our top tips you can ensure your fragile products will get to their destination unscathed.

Table of Contents

1. Use the Right Size Box

However good a cardboard box is, it’s never going to work to your product's advantage if it’s the wrong size. This is always important, but particularly so if an item is easily broken. A box which is too big means the packaged item risks getting damaged by the box itself as it rattles around inside, even if it's wrapped carefully. The better the fit, the lower the probability of any damage in transit. 

Image of a cat filling up every empty space inside a cardboard box, representing importance of finding a box that fits your product so as to reduce damages.

The dimensions of the cardboard box when compared to the product are vital from a customer's perspective as well. Consumers absolutely hate it when a small item comes in an inappropriately sized box. Not only does it inconvenience them, (i.e., when it could simply have been posted through a letterbox), but it’s also viewed as lazy and wasteful in the extreme. Cardboard boxes come in all shapes and sizes for this very reason so there's no excuse for not finding an appropriate one for your product.

2. Fill your voids

Many times, despite a box being ideally sized for a product, void fill remains a necessary component of the packing process. Void fill is protective cushioning, commonly used to ‘fill’ any space not taken up by the product in your cardboard box. It prevents your product from moving around, essentially fixing it in place and therefore substantially reducing the chances of it getting damaged. It’s more or less an essential component when shipping fragile items that don’t have bespoke or moulded packaging even if your cardboard box is the perfect size.

paper void fill material inside a cardboard box

Void fill comes in many forms. Traditionally, polystyrene beads and packaging peanuts have proved popular (though somewhat messy), but then there's also bubble wrap, airbags and shredded paper.

Some of these options – many of which are still used regularly - are more environmentally friendly than others. And manufacturers, conscious that consumers are on the lookout for sustainable packaging, now go the extra mile in this area. Take packing peanuts, for example. Nowadays, these can be produced using wheat starch, which means though they retain the strength of styrofoam, they’re entirely water soluble).

Cushion packaging too – and by that we mean air bags and the like – has evolved too. It can be produced using plastics that are not only recyclable but also made of 100% recyclable content. The only caveat here is what’s going to happen when they reach the consumer? Will these ‘ecologically sound’ materials be able to be recycled properly? Are there the facilities to do so? As opposed to paper or wheat starch peanuts, they can’t simply be put into the green bin or thrown onto the compost heap. For this reason, it may make more sense to look at other more easily recyclable ways and means. Wrapping, for example!

3. Wrap it up

An excellent alternative to both airbags and bubble wrap is honeycomb paper. Forming a protective barrier around any product regardless of its shape or size, honeycomb paper wrap is recyclable and fully compostable. It also looks good, fitting in with the environmental aesthetic of the moment; customers will still be able to have that ‘wow’ unboxing moment without having to stop and think about sustainability.

protective paper wrapping inside a cardboard box

Another basic packing alternative is paper wrap, be it cushioned or standard. Ruggedised for strength, paper wrap comes unbleached and is therefore also wholly and easily biodegradable. Compatible for use with a void fill machine, it’s still quick and efficient to use if your hands are your tools.

Paper is super lightweight which means it will have little to no impact on delivery and shipping costs. It requires very little energy to produce in the first place and joy of joys, it can be reused time and time again.

4. Divide and conquer

It always pays to consolidate shipments and send multiple items together where possible, this is just the same whether the items are transported by cardboard box or more specialised packaging. But be warned, when shipping multiple items in one order, items should be wrapped separately so they don’t bump into each other during transit causing unsightly or irreparable damage. 

Divider inserts made fromm corrugated cardboard, often used to create sections inside a cardboard box for storing or shipping fragile items

If, however, you regularly have multiple items to ship and those items are a) uniform b) numerous or c) both, it will, of course, be incredibly time consuming and frustrating to have to wrap the products one by one. There might even be appearances to consider; after all, you want the consumers' first glimpse of their items to be impressive in order to reassure them they've made the right decision in shopping with you. In this instance, there are some fantastic options to go with your cardboard box to get the most out of order fulfilment. Let us provide you therefore, with a basic introduction to the wonderful world of cardboard inserts…read on to find out more.

5. Use cardboard inserts

Sometimes referred to as paperboard or corrugated inserts, cardboard inserts are especially useful if you’re shipping multiple products that risk damaging each other: wine glasses, cutlery or ceramics for example. Inserts mean that the integrity of an individual object can be maintained, as part of a multi-product packaging strategy. 

Custom inserts inside a cardboard box enable the product to sit centered with a protective air gap all around

Inserts create structurally secure spaces. Each is a mini engineering project in its own right and quite often, they also offer the consumer a viable, long lasting storage option - think coffee pods or dishwasher tablets.

What inserts do just as well as protecting a product, is to elevate its presentation. This makes them a superb option for more luxurious items, like cosmetics or beauty products. They also work well on a promotional level because they enhance appearance and thus increase the chances of exposure; there’s an immediate impact for the consumer when they’re opening the box and get that all important memorable visual moment which helps to cement brand identity and with it, customer loyalty.

Fully removable or integral to a cardboard box, inserts can be precisely cut and shaped to the dimensions and profile of your product. In this way, you’re cutting your cloth to fit your product rather than making your product fit the box and having to rely on void fill or wrapping to secure your items during transit.

And box inserts can be straightforward and simple or more complex, depending on what they're protecting and what you're promoting. For example, if they're die-cut and printed they can be both functional and strategic. Another bonus is that they can be supplied flat packed for convenient storage.

6. Consider moulded material

Moulded material is somewhat similar to cardboard inserts in that it goes inside the cardboard box to create specialised protection. Produced using wastepaper and other natural fibres, it's been used with huge success in the food and baking industries, though it has also gained a well deserved foothold in the cosmetic industry as well.

Moulded paper inserts made from pulp, great for protecting products shipped inside cardboard boxes

If you can’t quite picture what moulded material looks like, think about the holders you get in coffee shops for your takeaway cups or the cardboard plates those ‘ripe and ready avocados’ are placed on. Now picture that kind of material but shaped to hold certain products and go inside cardboard boxes, like an electric toothbrush or camera equipment.

Highly cost effective and convenient, a downside of moulded pulp is that it isn’t the right material to choose to print on, because – essentially – it’s moulded pulp and the quality of its surface is low. However, from a protection perspective, it’s strong and durable and there’s always the option of adding a surface to it to create a higher end feel. Quite honestly, why would you though, when you can have the rustic look and feel of recyclable material for a reasonable price and it’s easily able to be elevated by the quality of your cardboard box and other packaging materials like stickers and cardboard sleeves? Another thing to mention is that not all moulds are pulp. Some are made from plastic. We haven't mentioned them here as we like to stick to natural, biodegradable materials whenever we can.

7. Float for foam 

First off, don’t confuse all foams with styrofoam (also polystyrene) which is itself commonly used as a protective material by businesses. That's what I remember my VHS recorder coming in and my stereo speakers (those were the days..).

Foam inserts - those that look like foam, i.e. sponge not polystyrene - are actually made from polyethylene (PE) or ester polyurethane (PU) and take hardly any energy to produce nor does their manufacture require toxic chemicals. Once finished with, being thermoplastic, they can be recycled repeatedly into a huge variety of household items, picture frames or plant packaging to name but two options.

When thinking about foam as the insert of choice to protect your product in its cardboard box, remember that, like moulded pulp, it can be customised into the exact shape of that product. Foam's structure means it can adapt to a product’s unique shape very well indeed and there's no problem either if a product's got a lot of protrusions or bits that stick out. Due to its density and cushioning properties, foam is perfect for delicate items like jewellery; it provides a protective barrier against temperature changes, chemicals, moisture and microorganisms and finally, as if all that wasn't enough, an anti-static variety is available which is ideal to transport electronics. Like any good packaging option - paper, cardboard inserts, moulded pulp - not only does foam protect from vibration and abrasion, it’s also lightweight. 

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So there you have it. Seven options to consider carefully if you've got to ship fragile items in cardboard boxes. Whichever one you plump for, once you’ve taken steps to product your product, make sure you also display it to its best advantage. With any of these possibilities, you can still ensure that you make your packaging stand out so that it reflects your brand identity and is representative of your company’s ethos.

Talk to us about cardboard boxes today. There's nothing we like more, really. Head to the shop section of our website to take a look at the products we offer or call us directly on 01234 414 775.

This article was written by...

Jo Hilton

I studied at the University of St. Andrews and have an MA in French and German. For a number of years, I worked for a Swiss financial institution and lived in Hamburg, London, Zürich and NYC before retraining as a primary school teacher and settling with my family in Cambridgeshire. When I'm not at school, I write content for various blogs and edit academic research articles for clients at ETH Zürich and the University of Munich. I'm also in the process of completing a Masters in Crime and Thriller writing at the University of Cambridge, so behind me you'll find a trail of fictional dead bodies and actual biscuit wrappers.

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