3M is releasing a new type of packaging that requires no tape and no filler, and it can be customized to fit any object under 3 pounds—which 3M says accounts for about 60% of all items that are bought online and shipped.

3M claims that the material, called the Flex & Seal Shipping Roll, can reduce time spent packing, the amount of packaging materials, and the space needed to ship packages. The roll is made out of three layers of different plastics that 3M developed, including a grey, internal adhesive layer that sticks to itself. There’s also a middle cushioning layer that seems similar to bubble wrap to protect items during shipping, and a tougher outside layer that is tear-and-water-resistant. It comes in rolls of assorted sizes, almost like wrapping paper: 10-foot, 20-foot, and 40-foot rolls are available now with prices ranging from $12.99 to $48.99, and a 200-foot bulk role will soon be available in August 2019.

The Flex & Seal is one way that 3M is trying to get in on the gold rush of the on-demand economy. The U.S. Postal Service handled more than 6 billion packages in 2018, and UPS recently reported net income of $1.69 billion in the second quarter of 2019, up from $1.49 billion during the second quarter in 2018.

For the thousands of smaller merchants that sell items via large marketplaces like Amazon, Etsy, and eBay, as well as small businesses and direct-to-consumer startups, putting together a box is time-intensive. They are often stuck doing things by hand. And soon, if small companies are selling through Amazon, they’ll be forced to reduce the amount of packaging they’re using or pay a fine.

On top of the manual labor of shipping lots of products, the rise of fast delivery has also raised consumers’ expectations for small brands, which are now up against the likes of Amazon. “[The online economy] . . . has changed the expectations on both ends, whether you’re an online marketplace owner and small business and you’re responsible for sending, but also the consumer expectations around how and when you expect to receive [packages],” says Remi Kent, who oversees business globally for 3M’s Post-it Notes and Scotch Brands.

3M is also looking into business partnerships with larger retailers, insisting that Flex & Seal could help them compete against each other to be the most convenient place to buy goods online. 

“Some of their business is automated … but some is done by hand,” Kent says. “We think we’re a better solution for those items done by hand.” The Flex & Seal is recyclable—it’s made of the same material as disposable plastic bags. But similar to plastic bags, the only way to recycle it is to take it to certain retail stores and recyclers, which might be able to include it in their plastic bag recycling program. Kent recognizes this is a problem, and says the team is working on making it easier to recycle. “We’re looking at how could we change the construction of the material choices so it becomes easier to recycle at your home,” she says. 

Flex & Seal does have an environmental benefit, 3M says: Shipping companies would be able to fit more of this type of package in a single truck, making the supply chain more efficient and potentially reducing emissions.If Flex & Seal takes off, perhaps it will replace the cardboard boxes that usually land on your doorstep with thin, blue packages.

Source: Fast Company