Buying and selling products online is the new normal, and many people are turning to Amazon Prime instead of brick-and-mortar stores. With so many purchases hitting doorsteps, it’s kind of insane that shipping materials haven’t evolved much—most items still arrive in bulky cardboard boxes that are often oversized and awkward, stuffed with wasteful padding that’s hard to recycle. And for most people, getting a shipment ready is a time-intensive hassle.
In response to the waste created by the rise of e-commerce, 3M has created a no-brainer boon for packaging shipments—and it promises to cut the time, materials, and space needed to ship products by up to 50% compared to cardboard boxes.
Flex & Seal is a recyclable plastic packing material that comes rolled into spools like wrapping paper. It's ideal for smaller items—three pounds and under, according to their website—and it can be cut to size for a custom fit. No tape is needed—when folded over, it adheres to itself for a waterproof seal. Aside from a shipping label, a pair of scissors is all you’ll need to get your package out the door.
The three-layered sheet has built-in padding that works like bubble wrap, adding a lightweight yet effective buffer while in transit. The adhesive, designed by the Minnesota–based company specifically for this application, sticks to itself and not to the item; simply fold it over and press for a snug fit, and trim away any excess material for a slighter footprint. The sheet is made of the same material as a plastic bag, so while you can’t simply toss it in your home recycling bin, it can be dropped off with any retailer that has a plastic bag recycling program.
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Consumer shipping technology has been collecting dust for years. "This is simpler, easier, and more modern, frankly," says Lindsay Schostag, a consumer insights manager with 3M. "We think this product is just a start, but there are a lot of additional things we can do in this area to help people with shipping."
The idea for a new packaging material is a tamer one for 3M—a company that has long encouraged wacky and off-the-wall ideas from its employees. Since 1948, the company’s 15% program has incentivized workers to chase kernels of thought and daydreams—which have led to numerous innovations that appear to be paying off. In 2017, the company set aside 6% of its sales (a total of $2 billion) for this kind of research and development, according to a Forbes article touting 3M’s steady growth.
If Flex & Seal catches on with a consumer base and larger shipping companies, it could lead to a massive reduction in cardboard boxes and packaging, saving heaps of resources. Trucks and planes could ship more product per trip, and the time it takes to package small shipments could be halved.
Those looking to modernize their shipping game can now purchase rolls from Scotch. For the rest, keep an eye out for blue rectangles on your front porch.