A warehouse worker packs boxes
By Jeff White | May 1, 2024

We’re Moving to More Paper-Based Supply Chain Processes as the Demand for More Technology Grows (and Our Customers are Going to Benefit in a Big Way)

We’ve found a way to package many of our products without using plastic…and without compromising their quality in transit. Check this out.

The trend away from plastic is picking up steam in front-line retail and hospitality environments, which is great to see. However, we believe more can and should be done to cut back on single-use plastics further upstream in the supply chain, especially in product packaging. 

That’s why Zebra’s Packaging Engineering team has started using a new paper bag in place of the polyethylene bags that we’ve long used in our mobile device packaging. We call it the “tea bag” because it’s a new filter paper bag made of wood pulp that’s reminiscent of those used for tea. 

The new "tea bag" packaging Zebra is using in place of plastic when shipping certain mobile devices.

What’s so great about this type of packaging, besides the fact that it’s biodegradable, is that it can be recycled in the paper waste stream. (Good news for customers who want to increase the environmental sustainability of their business.) This paper bag, in particular, is also certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) because wood pulp is a renewable resource. Of course, paper bags have a smaller carbon footprint compared to plastic bags, especially if they are made from recycled materials as they require less energy to produce and recycle and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing. So, it’s hard to find a reason not to give them a try.

Plus, we know that paper bags are less likely to become persistent litter in the environment, too, and degrade more quickly than plastic if they do become litter. This means this small change we’re making can have a big impact on the quality of wildlife and marine ecosystems, which is important to us. (We have sustainability goals, too.)

“Cool Concept, but Will It Work?”

Now, if you’re familiar with the feel of tea bags, you’re probably wondering if the material is going to hold up against the weight and design of tech devices. Although the wood pulp design we’re using for our paper packaging is much stronger than the average tea bag, it never hurts to test a new product before going all in on it. (We don’t want to create unnecessary waste while trying to reduce waste.)

So, we’ve decided that we’re going to first use the “tea bag” paper packaging with our smaller, lighter, handheld products, such as mobile computers, printers, rugged scanners, etc. And we’re going to use it primarily to protect the device against abrasion inside their corrugated cartons. (So, if you order some Zebra ZQ3X and ZQ5X mobile printers any time soon, you’ll see the paper packaging.) We’ve tested this packaging extensively for these smaller devices and are confident they’re going to function just as well as plastic has in terms of being a protective mechanism while the product is stored and transported.

To the question of whether this switch will work in terms of making a positive environmental impact? 

Let me put it this way: We’re only using this particular paper bag packaging in place of the Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) plastic material previously used for certain smaller devices right now. Yet, we still reduced the amount of plastic we used in our product packaging by 44.4K square meters in 2023. That’s equal to 10.97 acres or 8.3 (American) football fields!!

So, I think it’s going to work! In fact, I really believe it’s something everyone in our industry should be doing, so I hope they follow our lead.

Reducing Paper Use  

I also hope that once the switch is made from plastic to paper in product packaging that efforts are also made to reduce the amount of paper used. Paper may be a renewable resource, but that doesn’t mean we should treat it as if it’s an unlimited resource. It’s also still an expense that every organization should try to reduce. 

That’s why my packaging engineering team has also been collaborating with the procurement, quality, program management, finance, and sustainability teams here at Zebra to strategically redesign some boxes used to ship our products. We started with the boxes used for Zebra’s highly popular TC5X and TC7X touch mobile computers because the cost of packaging was rising along with demand for these devices. 

We wanted a solution sturdy enough to survive the long transit through multiple fulfillment centers yet compact enough to minimize volumetric freight costs when shipped around the globe. We set our sights on reducing material usage, lowering direct material costs, and making better use of pallet space. Improving environmental sustainability for Zebra and our customers was also top of mind. 

Where did we land?

Well, we streamlined our design into one-piece packaging, eliminating the polyethylene bag and the corrugated insert. (Less plastic and paper!) 

A Zebra mobile computer packaged using retention film, which reduces both plastic and paper use.

The new retention film solution is manufactured using a corrugated die-cut carton with a bonded thermoplastic polyurethane film (TPU) that stretches and “encapsulates” the product within. The packaging’s transparent film serves as a protective shipper and makes for an appealing presentation once the box is opened. We’re proud to have struck the perfect balance between minimal packaging and maximum performance. Not only is our retention film carton certified by the FSC (like the “tea bag” packaging used inside the boxes), but it’s also recyclable as corrugated waste and the TPU film is biodegradable. (There’s a third-party test report available upon request to validate this.) 

Our efforts also paid off financially with $884,000 USD in savings over a one-year period, and we’re already making plans to start using it with other product lines. We don’t have to handle or store as many packaging materials (or packaged products) either, which has associated facility and labor expenses. 

Here are some of the noteworthy numbers:

• 23% less corrugated material used

• 98% less plastic LDPE used 

• 68% palletization improvement

• 41% less inventory space needed for TC5X

I challenge you to match – or beat – these numbers! (I’m challenging my team to beat the same.) 

The reduction of both plastic and paper used for product packaging should be a continuous goal for manufacturers, distributors, and others downstream in the supply chain. It’s not enough to replace plastic with paper or other renewable/reusable materials at the point of sale in the last mile. We must reduce it at every touchpoint, starting in the first mile.

We’re making strides to do our part. Are you?


Related Reads:

Blog, Article, Success Story, Innovative Ideas, Inside Zebra Nation, New Ways of Working, Manufacturing, Retail, Transportation and Logistics, Warehouse and Distribution,
Jeff White
Jeff White

Jeff White is currently the principal packaging engineer at Zebra Technologies, where he is responsible for both direct designs of new product packaging as well as oversight of outside JDM new and sustaining packaging designs. He is also a member of Zebra's Green Product Council. 

Jeff has more than 30 years of experience within the electronics manufacturing industry and has contributed to efficient packaging designs for Zebra products, with many resulting in significant cost, materials usage and freight savings.

Previously, he served as senior manager for mechanical fixture development team, where he managed engineers, machinists and technicians. Jeff holds a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from New York Institute of Technology, as well as an MBA from LIU / CW Post.

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