For packaging and shipping its exclusive gifts, New York's Museum of Modern Art opts for a dissolvable cushioning material to protect the art pieces and the environment.
Packaging for gifts of New York's prestigious Museum of Modern Art is just as contemporary as the art in its collection. Recently the Museum decreed that the void fill used to package Museum gifts be as superior environmentally as the Museum's artistic reputation. About two years ago MoMA switched from expanded polystyrene (EPS) peanuts to ECO-FOAM® a foamed loose-fill product developed and patented by National Starch & Chemical (Bridgewater NJ) that is now manufactured and distributed under license by American Excelsior (Arlington TX). ECO-FOAM is made by extruding starch derived from a special hybrid of corn into a cushioning peanut that closely resembles the EPS piece it replaces. Since it's derived from a renewable resource like corn ECO-FOAM is considered superior to EPS that's made from oil. The process to produce the foam peanuts uses water in place of chemical blowing agents typically used with EPS. In fact each package shipped with ECO-FOAM includes an explanatory insert supplied by American Excelsior. In part it says "This revolutionary packaging alternative is 99% cornstarch and safe for the environment. When you receive your order please reuse the loose fill for your own packages or dispose of it by adding it to your compost pile watering it into your lawn or dissolving it in water in the sink." Benefits at a cost Two years after MoMA made the switch its gift fulfillment service Shepard's Inc. Bethel CT still uses the dissolvable product only for the Museum. "We're a public warehouse that does contract fulfillment work" explains Bill Goodman chairman of Shepard's. "We pack for about 50 other customers. But for now only the Museum uses ECO-FOAM. We have one dedicated area for packing the Museum products. All our other repack areas use EPS peanuts. "This is really a function of cost. ECO-FOAM is more expensive than EPS. For us the Museum takes care of the difference in cost." Among those other customers Goodman notes some have products that rarely require repacking. Shepard's simply ships a product in the same package it received. That's also true for the Museum. Some MoMA gifts like lamps designed by Frank Lloyd Wright or even special chairs are shipped in the same packaging that the fulfillment house receives. At Shepard's the ECO-FOAM product handles virtually the same as the EPS it replaces. In fact the company uses the same overhead bag-type dispensers that it used with EPS. It's the gift recipient that gets the advantages. Although static electricity is not a factor during packing it can be a real nuisance to the gift recipient. Economics aside Goodman will say: "There's no question that considering static electricity and the ecological point of view ECO-FOAM is a superior product." Stanching complaints Goodman says that Louise Chinn the Museum's director of operations for stores and mail insisted on it for environmental reasons. In addition complaints by gift recipients about EPS loose fill was also a driving factor behind the conversion. Shepard's warehouse and accounts manager Kathi Guevarez recalls the problem. "One customer who received a package from us packed with polystyrene loose fill wrote to tell us how messy it was and that they didn't know how to dispose of it. Actually some customers spent the postage to return the EPS peanuts to us because they didn't know how to dispose of it" she says. "Another complaint was that the EPS became brittle and broke up leaving a plastic dust that even seeped into plastic boxes of playing cards." These individual complaints along with pressure from environmental groups convinced the MoMA staff that it needed an alternative. Shepard's found that the new material not only could be handled like EPS but it also provided equivalent packing protection characteristics. In fact Shepard's was able to use the bag-drop dispensers that it had earlier used for EPS. The protective product is supplied in 12-cu-ft bags that are emptied into one of nine overhead bags that meter the product to the packaging stations. "In our operation there is really no difference in handling between EPS peanuts and ECO-FOAM" says Goodman. In operation Museum gifts are picked from inventory at Shepard's and brought to the packing area. As the operators pack the boxes they can meter in the cushioning pieces by means of a valve on the feed chute leading from the overhead hopper bags. In fact says the maker ECO-FOAM can be easily blown by air conveying and bulk distribution systems since the product is naturally anti-static. It's also designed to support heavy loads and fill limited voids. "We did experience damage when we were using the other materials" says Bruce G. Godfray MoMA senior vice president. "Since we made the conversion we haven't had any complaints nor have we experienced damage problems." Savings from the elimination of damage claims and the service of complaining customers helps MoMA handle the upcharge vs EPS. The Museum says Bill Goodman pays the difference in cost between ECO-FOAM and conventional EPS. "We haven't tried to move our other fulfillment customers into using it because for most of them cost is a major factor" Goodman says. Still says American Excelsior's Steven Rothstein a number of organizations in a variety of industries have discovered the value of ECO-FOAM. "They not only use it because it serves their packaging needs but also because it helps to preserve the environment for future generations."