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Types of Packaging 101

What is Packaging?

Types of packaging

Packaging refers to the materials or containers used to protect items while in transit, on store shelves, and around the home.

Common types of packaging include boxes, tubes, bottles, and wraps made from materials such as paper, plastic, glass, and cardboard. Different packaging is required to protect items based on industry regulations, fragility, product requirements (such as food hygiene), and sustainability.

There are three main types of packaging – primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary packaging comes into direct contact with its contents, secondary packaging provides an additional protective barrier and tertiary packaging may be used to hold multiple items together.

The three packaging types are often used together, for example, a frozen pizza that is shrink-wrapped for preservation (primary), then stored in a cardboard box to protect against impact or contamination (secondary). Multiple pizza boxes may then be stored on a pallet for transport and bundled together with stretch wrap (tertiary).

Packaging products can also be broken down by form, as either rigid or flexible packaging. Rigid packaging refers to sturdy products such as hard plastics and glass that don’t bend or compromise when handled. Flexible packaging changes its shape or structure when handled without breaking – for example, bags and pouches, film, and foil.

Why packaging is important?

Packaging plays an important role in storage, safety, and distribution for both businesses and consumers.

For consumers, packaging provides a protective barrier to maintain the condition of products from the warehouse until it reaches them – keeping goods safe from handling, contamination, impact, weather, and environment.

Packaging also represents a key decision for businesses, keeping goods safe, secure, and compact while on the move. Businesses need to keep costs down by streamlining logistics operations and reducing losses from damaged stock.

Find out more about shipping solutions for small businesses in our comprehensive guide.

What are the main types of packaging?

Different products and solutions are needed to meet various packaging needs. Each packaging project requires a box, container, covering, or unique solution that keeps its contents secure and free from contamination while remaining economical on space.

Here, we take a look at some of the most common packaging solutions and their benefits:

Types of Boxes

Types of Boxes

Boxes are one of the most popular packaging solutions due to their versatility, storage space, and strength.

As a secondary packaging solution, boxes provide plenty of space for multiple products or void fill for added protection. The rigid structure of boxes helps withstand impact and provides a protective barrier for contents.

Boxes are also popular for their branding potential – offering a large surface area for businesses to include branding or bespoke printing.

Popular materials used to create packaging boxes include cardboard (also known as corrugated or containerboard), paperboard, hard plastics, and wood.

Some of the common uses of boxes for packaging include:

  • Secondary packaging solutions such as flatpack cardboard delivery boxes
  • Shoeboxes
  • Plastic cosmetics containers
  • Cardboard food packaging such as pizza and cereal boxes
  • Wooden crates and boxes commonly used for freight

Types of plastic packaging

Types of Plastic Packaging

Plastic is arguably the most versatile packaging material – with hard plastics commonly used to create rigid packaging solutions such as boxes and containers, and soft plastics often used to create flexible packaging solutions such as bags, pouches, and shrink wrap.

The material is popular for its durable properties – in both rigid and flexible products – and does not break, pierce or shatter under impact.

Some of the most common plastic packaging solutions include:

Types of paper packaging

Types of Paper Packaging

Paper packaging – and paper-based products such as cardboard and paperboard packaging – represents a lightweight yet durable and cost-effective solution used for a range of unique projects.

Paper packaging is versatile, creating a range of solutions from boxes to bags and wrapping products. Each product offers unique benefits, with cardboard proving protection against impact while paper bags remain lightweight and compact for effortless transport and storage.

Paper-based packaging solutions are environmentally friendly, and the most-recycle material by weight in the US. Most paper packaging can be recycled (as long as it isn’t contaminated with other products, from food stains to foil decorations).

Common types of paper packaging include:

  • Cardboard boxes – from large delivery boxes to food packaging such as cereal boxes
  • Cardboard take-out packaging
  • Paperboard cartons and corrugated containers
  • Kraft paper used for protective void filling

Types of barrier packaging

Types of Barrier Packaging

Barrier packaging refers to the protective coating layers in products like bags, pouches, and film, that are designed to prevent contaminants from penetrating the packaging and keep contents safe from outside elements.

It is most commonly used in food packaging, where products need to avoid exposure to oxygen, moisture, and light, and lock in flavor.

Barrier packaging can be any product that is impermeable to outside contaminants, such as glass, metal, and plastic. However, food packaging products are commonly created from co-extruded combinations of paper and plastic known as "laminates". These layers work together to form an air- and leak-tight barrier.

Common examples of barrier packaging include:

  • Bags and pouches with a PET coating layer
  • Paper wrapping with protective foil layers, such as those used to package cheeses
  • Metal cans and tins that are naturally impermeable to gases and liquids, such as those used to store fruits
  • Glass bottles used to hold milk and other liquids

What are the main sustainable types of packaging?

Types of sustainable packaging

Sustainability continues to be a key quality in packaging materials, with 43% of US consumers citing environmental impact as extremely or very important in packaging.

For packaging to be deemed sustainable, it must be sourced or produced without draining resources or be able to be degraded, recycled, or reused.

Recycable Packaging

One of the most common sustainable packaging solutions is recyclable packaging –products that can be broken down to have their contents reprocessed into new products instead of being sent to landfill.

The latest data suggests over half of generated packaging (53.9%) in the US is recycled each year, with paper, glass, steel, aluminum, and plastic among the most commonly recycled materials.

Examples of commonly-recycled packaging include:

  • Cardboard boxes and tubes
  • Most plastic packaging solutions, including bottles and containers (made from LDPE, HDPE, or PP)
  • Kraft paper used for protective void filling

Biodegradable Packaging

Biodegradable packaging refers to products that naturally degrade and decompose after use, instead of going to landfill or the ocean.

While many materials technically decompose, packaging products labeled with a ‘compostable’ marking are the most eco-friendly solution. These safely decompose in commercial or home compost sites within a year (compared with alternative products that may take decades or centuries to decompose).

Biodegradable packaging eventually turns into soil to support farming and growing efforts.

Some of the most common types of biodegradable packaging include:

  • Kraft paper used for protective void filling
  • Some cardboard boxes
  • Some plastic bags and pouches (derived from natural resources)

Reusable packaging

Reusable packaging limits reliance on new resources. These solutions are typically sturdy and durable to avoid damage, easy to clean, and may even be collapsible to save on storage when being moved between sites.

While reusable packaging solutions generally include larger containers or industrial-size equipment – such as pallets and drums – there are also reusable consumer packaging products. These include items such as cosmetics and medicine containers designed to be refilled at home or in-store.

There are various types of reusable packaging, including those designed to be refilled at home or in stores, as well as those designed to be returned to the retailer or the manufacturer either by curb-side pick-up or drop-off points.

Popular reusable packaging solutions include:

  • Industrial-sized bulk containers such as drums and tanks
  • Boxes
  • Cosmetics bottles – with new products sent in pouches to refill at home
  • Glass jars and containers used in combination with in-store refill stations (for pet food, coffee, and more)

Renewable Packaging

Reusable packaging limits reliance on new resources. These solutions are typically sturdy and durable to avoid damage, easy to clean, and may even be collapsible to save on storage when being moved between sites.

As well as being sustainably sourced, renewable packaging should also use renewable energy during its manufacturing process and either be recyclable or biodegradable at the end of its lifecycle.

Examples of renewable packaging products include:

  • Compostable bags made from bioplastics
  • Paper packaging (made from wood – a renewable resource) such as Kraft Paper
  • Cardboard boxes

How to choose the right type of packaging for your product?

There are a range of considerations for businesses when it comes to choosing packaging solutions, including:

  • Cost – from high-volume packaging projects to small bespoke packaging, cost and budget often dictate the chosen solution. Materials like glass are often seen as luxury consumer packaging solutions, however, they are heavy, fragile, and costly per unit. More cost-effective yet durable packaging solutions include cardboard boxes and plastic containers.
  • Product Considerations – some products may require unique packaging solutions to avoid damage or spoilage, such as fragile items and food. Delicate items may require durable and impact-proof secondary packaging solutions such as cardboard or plastic boxes, as well as protective void filling such as Kraft Paper. Food items may require unique solutions such as heat shrink wrapping, vacuum packaging, or plastic wrap for preservation.
  • Size and Logistics – the size, shape, weight, and transport needs of products will also determine the types of packaging solutions needed. Large, heavy, or uniquely shaped items may require additional packaging considerations such as corner protectors or stretch film for added protection or to secure multiple items together. Packaging should also be compact and lightweight to increase the number of goods delivered at once and keep costs down.
  • Design – many packaging solutions allow businesses to print directly on the product for additional marketing opportunities. Those looking to include logos, colors, or bespoke branding on packaging solutions may choose options such as cardboard boxes or printed pallet wrap.
  • Sustainability – businesses looking to reap the rewards of sustainability among today’s eco-conscious consumers may opt for eco-friendly materials. This means sourcing renewable, reusable, recyclable, or biodegradable materials such as cardboard and some bioplastics.

What are the different types of packaging machines?

Packaging machines save time and cost when handling heavy-duty packaging projects.

There are various machines on the market to handle different packaging materials and projects. Some of the most popular packaging machines include:

  • Shrink wrap machines – such as shrink tunnels and shrink packaging systems. These apply heat to plastic film wrap to shrink it tightly around its contents for a secure and hygienic finish. Commonly used with food products.
  • Stretch wrap machines – also known as pallet wrapping machines, automatically apply stretch wrap to palleted loads via a film carriage and turntable platform.
  • Heat sealing machines – are used to seal the ends of a range of plastic bags, locking products safely and securely in the packaging.
  • Strapping and bundling machines – automate the process of bundling multiple boxes together or reinforcing boxes or containers holding heavy items during shipping and storing.
  • Case packers – automate the process of packaging high-volume orders by placing items securely in cases, boxes, or containers.
  • Filling machines – automate the process of accurately decanting products such as liquids, powders, tablets, and more into different containers.
  • Palletizing machines – automate the process of loading products onto pallets.

Please note, this is not an exhaustive list. There are many other packaging machines available – this list simply covers some of the most popular types. View other types of packaging machines in our comprehensive guide.

 
Packaging Machine Packaging Solution/Material Example Packging Project

Shrink wrap machines

Heat shrink wrap

Frozen pizza shrink wrapped to
protect against handling
or contamination

Labelling Machines

Stickers and Thermo-labels

Package with printed label

Stretch wrap machines

Stretch wrap

Pallets of boxes secured in stretch
wrap to keep items together in transit

Robotic Arms

Rigid Containers

Robotic arm placing products
into a rigid container

Heat sealing machines

Plastic film and plastic bags

Sealing the end of a vacuum
bag filled with food products

Conveyors and Accumulators

Rigid and flexible packaging materials

Bottles moving down a conveyor
onto an accumulator

Strapping

Steel or plastic strapping,
boxes, palleted loads

Reinforcing a cardboard box
ready for shipping

Case packers

Boxes, cases, containers

Automating the process of loading
filled bottles into a
cardboard box for delivery

Flow Wrapping

Co-extruded flexible flow wrapping film

A flow wrapped fortune cookie

Filling machines

Bottles, boxes, glass jars,
plastic pharmaceutical or
cosmetics containers

Automating the process of accurately
dispensing 100ml of liquid
into empty bottles

Capping Machines

Rigid bottles, containers, and tubes

Capping machine closing bottles

Palletizing machines

Pallets

Automating the process of loading 20
cardboard boxes onto a
pallet for delivery

Case Erector

Boxes and cartons

Erects boxes and cartons from flat to
upright and ready for packaging.
 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

 
  • What are the categories of packages?
    The three main categories of packaging are primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary packaging refers to packaging products that come into direct contact with the packaged item, such as candy wrappers or blister packaging in the pharmaceutical industry.
    Secondary packaging refers to the products that store and secure primary packaging solutions to provide an additional barrier of defense or to keep multiple items packaged together. For example, a cardboard box containing multiple bags of candy for delivery. Tertiary packaging can then be used to strap or bundle multiple secondary packing products together, for example, stretch wrapping a pallet load of boxes.
  • What is the most common packaging?
    The most common materials used for packaging include paper, plastic, wood, and glass. According to data, over 41,000 tons of paper packaging were produced in 2018, making it the most common packaging material.
  • What are the four main functions of packaging?
    The four functions that packaging should provide are protection, convenience, identification, and promotion.
    Packaging should protect its contents from impact, damage, and even environment, provide a convenient way to store and transport multiple products, and make products identifiable through recognizable branding – ultimately promoting the brand through appealing design, too.
  • • What are the five characteristics of good packaging?
    Effective packaging solutions are strong, protective, convenient, attractive, and sustainable. This means that a packaging product should be durable to secure heavy or awkward contents, protect its contents against impact or environment, be conveniently compact and lightweight for storage and transport, be clean and have the opportunity to add branding elements, and be sustainably sourced, reusable, or recyclable.
    Looking to find the perfect packaging solution for your unique, high-volume packaging projects? US Packaging & Wrapping offers a range of solutions to support safe and secure packaging for delivery or storage.
    View our packaging solutions or chat with our team of packaging experts for more information today.
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