Look Ma, No Spills! How Paper Transports Food Products Safely


Cardboard and salt might not go together on your palate, but they’re both key ingredients in what winds up on your plate. From food producers to transporters to retailers, even the world’s finest culinary artists wouldn’t be able to work their magic without paper packaging to help ingredients and prepared foods reach consumers safely.

The journey to the kitchen begins at the producer, where goods are packaged for distribution. The classic corrugated box takes a star turn here, thanks to its inherent strength and antimicrobial properties that make it a top choice for shipping. “In transport, corrugated is king. Everything is being shipped in cartons and boxes, even fruits and vegetables,” says Soha Atallah, vice president of the World Packaging Organization and presenter at Pack Expo 2019.

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Packaging solutions specialists begin with three considerations: What good is being transported, how it’s being transported, and how to secure it. Brian Stepowany, senior manager of packaging research and development at B&G Foods, understands this need. “You’ve got to know your product—its weaknesses, its strengths, its characteristics,” said Stepowany in a forum session at Pack Expo 2019, “Addressing Transportation Questions in Today’s Ever-Changing Marketplace,” presented in tandem with Bill Colaiaco, president of Purple Diamond, an innovation center for design engineering and testing.

Once solutions specialists have that framework, they can find the best fit. Food products have varying needs, including temperature and moisture control, breakage and weight. Terry Burga, account manager for Signode, a provider of transit packaging, advises partners to use preformed corrugated pads for canned food. “It’s extremely strong, so it can handle a lot of weight.” But when dealing with a product that needs a different sort of security, like industrial-size multiwall sacks of flour, a different corrugated solution might be more appropriate. 

Honeycomb is one of those solutions. Named for its resemblance to bees’ honeycomb, the corrugated material has a strong strength-to-weight ratio and shock absorbency. When Dan Fleek, a design engineer with honeycomb manufacturer Hexacomb, was challenged by a client who wanted to ship premium glass beverages, corrugated came into play. Instead of shipping the bottles in individual partitions, the client wanted to ship them as a shrink-wrapped unit. By using corrugated honeycomb, Fleek delivered a product that could be easily unpacked without breakage. 

Paper packaging for safe food transport doesn’t end with the box. Anti-slip papers, grip sheets and pallet papers all prevent loads from shifting around. (In fact, the pallets themselves are turning to corrugated, as with Signode’s corrugated pallet, which offers strength without the weight, cost and sustainability concerns of conventional materials.)

In transport, corrugated boxes optimize available space because they pack flat and can be stacked. But transportation developers are one step ahead, considering the needs of retailers and assisting them in unloading to reduce labor costs. Signode’s Lock n’ Pop adhesive is a spray mist that helps corrugated cartons stick together for stability during transport but releases upon light pressure. Another manufacturer has developed an interlocking system that allows boxes to stack on top of each other with more security than a flat surface allows. 

Once it’s at the retailer, corrugated packaging plays a dual role: shelving and marketing, thanks to corrugated retail-ready displays. But as with all things packaging, e-commerce is changing the game. When testing a box for its fitness in transport, manufacturers work with a set of standardized testing criteria set by independent organizations, according to Colaiaco. 

“You’d normally orient the box in a certain position for testing—you’d find the boxmaker’s joint, the weakest part of the box, and use that information to perform tests,” Colaiaco says. “That would be the set position. Unfortunately, in e-commerce that position doesn’t matter because it’s not going through a retailer; it’s coming to your door. In e-commerce, we deal with the most stable position of the box, not what’s inside.” 

The result: A box that’s perfect for a food product when it’s managed by informed personnel oriented toward brick-and-mortar stores becomes a less-perfect choice when it shows up on your doorstep after being handled without attention to orientation.

 For those who prefer their doorstep food fully prepared, paper bags are always an option. And given that 1 in 4 food-delivery drivers admit to having snacked on the food they’re tasked with delivering, a sealed paper delivery bag like the one from ProAmpac just might do the trick.