We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: most of the best inventions (potato crisps, penicillin, post-it notes) have been happy accidents.
And so it is with bubble wrap which came about thanks to two engineers, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes of Hawthorne, New Jersey, who failed in their attempt to design a futuristic type of plastic wallpaper which offered a better, longer lasting alternative to the more tradition options.
However, in the process of gluing two shower curtains together, they came up with a packaging gem, though they didn’t quite realise it at the time. Sometimes you don’t always get what you wish for, you get something better. And the pesky air bubbles that found their way in between the two shower curtain sheets way back in 1957 and ruined their project, have been protecting our products and providing stress relief for over three quarters of a century.
Initially, Fielding and Chavannes thought the material they’d created might still have some use, good greenhouse insulation, for example. Sadly for them, the idea didn’t catch on; there were too many cost-effective options which already existed. Luckily though, it wasn’t the end of the road for their invention.
In 1960, Bowers, a marketing executive for Sealed Air (the company that gave bubble wrap its name) thought the material Fielding and Chavannes had created would be perfect as a kind of protective packaging. After all, the air it contained was not only ultra-lightweight - I mean, it's air! - but it also consequently provided a cushion for whatever was inside it, protecting from knocks, scrapes and impacts. Its flexibility also meant it could be wrapped easily and quickly around any product.
When then, in 1959, IBM announced the invention of their computers, Bowers took great pains to convince them that 'bubble wrap' was the best packaging material out there and ideal to protect the expensive yet fragile machines and all their accessories and associated paraphenalia during transit. IBM was sold on the idea and such was their influence as a multi-national company, that others started to sit up and take notice.
Bubble wrap is by its very nature a highly pliable and versatile material and it has now been used successfully for decades to protect fragile items when they’re being transported or stored. It’s no longer made from shower curtains though, so how is it produced?
Manufacture is really relatively straightforward. Various types of small resin beads are combined in just the right proportions to produce a final material which has exactly the right properties. Then, the beads are melted at roughly 450°C, forming a fine film which is flattened out. Once the film has been made into the appropriate thickness, it’s fed through rollers and this is where the magic happens, because the rollers are full of small holes and as the film travels over these holes, air is pushed up into them, creating bubbles which are then captured by slapping another layer of film directly on top. Finally, the wrap is cut to size and perforations are added so that the finished wrap can be rolled up. It’s usually subject to a quality check and then, of course, it's shipped off to packaging suppliers all over the world.
It’s estimated that each year, 240,000 miles of bubble wrap are produced in over 52 countries. Just to get an idea of how much that is, it's a length capable of stretching around the earth’s equator ten times. It shouldn't come as any surprise then, that today, bubble wrap has its own billion-dollar market. Not bad for failed wallpaper.
But bubble wrap hasn't just gained our admiration as a packaging product. It has stolen our affection, so much so that there is a bubble wrap appreciation day held every year on the last Monday in January. And it should have an appreciation day because barely anyone, big or small, young or old, can resist the delight that comes from popping the air pockets.
Studies have actually been carried out confirming that just one minute of popping those bubbles gives you the same benefit as receiving a 33-minute massage. No actual bubble wrap to hand? No problem. There's a whole host of bubble wrap apps to download from the ether specifically designed to relieve stress and recently, actual physical toys (remember those?) have flooded the children's market in the style of bubble wrap. Addictive and hugely popular, they've been praised for their ability to help kids focus, calm down and improve their fine motor skills.
The good news is that bubble wrap doesn't only lower your pulse rate... if necessary, it can increase it too.
In 1997 Farah Fawcett Major wore it (and it alone) on the cover of Playboy and in Norway, it’s still used as a kind of blanket to ward off hypothermia and retain the body's core temperature, such are its insulating properties, (though we don't think hypothermia is what Farah was suffering from, thank goodness).
And quite rightly, Bubble wrap has made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. On the 19th September 2015, 2,681 Boy Scouts somewhere in the USA achieved the honour of popping it simultaneously.
Bubble wrap is produced from a common type of plastic known as polyethylene and that comes to us via oil, which is a fossil fuel.
And although increasingly able to be dropped off at recycling centres thanks to improved infrastructures and technologies, bubble wrap is never going to be particularly environmentally friendly, because there are only so many times it can be recycled and remade.
Also, at the end of its life, it doesn’t biodegrade so if it does end up in landfill, it will take many, many years to break down. There's also the risk that as it's so light, it could get blown about and scattered, like the ubiquitous plastic bag, relatively easy to produce but floating around in the wind, polluting and compromising natural habitats.
But to improve bubble wrap's environmental credentials it should never be viewed as a disposable product, but one that can be used for multiple purposes, many, many times over. There's not much reason to throw it away: it's not something that should ever be used once and once alone.
There are so many ways to get the most out of bubble wrap - aside from the packaging angle - that you should actually prepare for your mind to be blown, if not from the sheer variety of options then certainly from the creativity that has gone into coming up with them.
From improving the comfort of a pet's bed, to producing original artwork, insulating pipes, making garden tools easier to use or ensuring the vegetables in your fridge last longer, it seems there are few instances that can't be improved by a piece of bubble wrap. Need a chocolate mould for your baking? Bubblewrap of course. Rollers to make your hair curly? Why wouldn't you reach for the bubblewrap? A long rainy afternoon with toddlers? Bubblewrap crafts, naturally! Bubble wrap has become far more than a packaging product. It's a highly affordable, practical material which provides us with the easy, long lasting solution to a myriad of domestic snags.
When all's said and done, as far as bubble wrap is concerned, it could still be argued that despite its lack of circularity, this simple yet revolutionary material is still an excellent option. The manufacture of many sustainable alternatives remains equally as energy intensive and these alternatives are not yet realistic or viable for many. Plus, in an imperfect world, bubble wrap makes its own contribution to reducing the amount of stuff needing to be repaired or recycled: it's so accessible and its use so widespread that it prevents thousands of products from being thrown away because they've been damaged in transit and rendered useless and, it can be used and reused without any real compromise in quality.
And it would seem churlish to demand that something is uninvented just because we're now focusing increasingly - and quite rightly - on producing sustainable, biodegradable alternatives. After all, bubble wrap has played a vital part in the evolution of packaging products and no other product has captured our attention or our affection quite as much.
To see The Packaging Club's range of bubble wrap and all our other forms of protective packaging, click here.