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Flat packs

WRITER: DANIEL DASEY

An open flat-pack with a dining table.

Mushroom foam, honeycomb inserts, and sugar-cane-based film. They sound like dishes on a dessert menu, but these materials could revolutionise the way that IKEA products are packaged.

A photo of Peter S Larsson, sustainability leader for packaging development, with different packaging solutions in front of him.

A few years back a problem with the famous IKEA flat-packs was noted. While the polystyrene foam used inside the packaging was great at absorbing shocks, it wasn’t so great for the environment. Made from fossil fuels, it was difficult to recycle and didn’t fit with the IKEA vision of using materials from sustainable sources.

“We were using enough expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) to fill the Empire State Building every two years, and in the best cases it went for incineration afterwards,” says IKEA Sustainability Leader for Packaging Development, Peter S Larsson. “EPS also often ended up in dumps and in nature, where it takes thousands of years to break down.”

Peter says while the material was used by companies worldwide, the Packaging Development team made the decision to no longer fill the air spaces in its flat-packs with a material far more harmful than air. “We decided to develop recyclable alternatives that were as good as or better than polystyrene, as well as being as simple to use, and as cheap or cheaper.”

Initially, the decision met big resistance, both internally and with suppliers. Many wondered why something that worked, was affordable and had been used for ages needed to be changed.

“But being big also comes with a big responsibility to take a clear people-and-planet positive approach to the way we do business,” says Peter. “We have an IKEA saying: ‘We don’t just make things, we make things better’. And this was one of these moments.”

The result, after years of intensive work, was a range of plant-fibre and paper-based packaging materials, which are fully recyclable and offer protection equal to polystyrene foam. Following a four-year roll-out, they have replaced EPS in almost all IKEA flat-packs globally, except those for appliances.

“We have been able to get good protective qualities by folding paper to get a shock-absorbing zone,” says Peter. “We have use moulded paper that you can put into different shapes and structures to provide the protection we need. We collect and recycle the material that ends up in our warehouses and stores, and we produce new packaging materials and new articles from it.”

"But being big also comes with a big responsibility to take a clear people-and-planet positive approach to the way we do business."

A photo of Peter S Larsson, sustainability leader for packaging development, holding package material in his hand.

Most customers haven’t noticed the change, but other manufacturers certainly have. “Toy manufacturers have started to use moulded paper solutions and it’s happening now in electronics as well, so I think it’s coming along.”

Changing to fibre-based materials is just one of the ways IKEA is working towards packaging that takes better care of the environment and preserves natural resources. Another important breakthrough has been the development of a new type of plastic film used for packaging products. Other savings have been made by continually striving to improve packaging and looking for smarter ways of doing things.

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Tealights in a tight plastic packaging.

Take GLIMMA tea candles as an example. A decade ago they were sold in loose bags of 100. The team realised that stacking and closely packing the candles could help save space on its pallets, improving sustainability and providing better protection to the candles themselves. This new and improved approach has helped reduce handling time and means 108 more packages can fit on each pallet. This means about 400 fewer trucks will hit the roads with GLIMMA.

Sometimes IKEA products are packaged so efficiently it can create moments of confusion. Customers wanting to buy a table and four chairs in the JOKKMOKK range were confused that all the items could fit in the one flat pack, creating a communication problem in the stores.

But with EKTORP, IKEA got it just right. It was the first sofa that came knocked-down and flat-packed, providing big advantages to customers who now could bring it home by themselves, without the need for removalists. Today, the majority of sofas and armchairs are flat-packaged. And, the trend is set to continue as the flat-pack wins new generations of fans who are prepared to think outside the box!

And some more highlights…