What Is Dunnage?

By Oleg Mikhailenko
Published in Solutions
March 30, 2022
4 min read
What Is Dunnage?

Firstly, solid plastic dunnage. This is most commonly used in industrial, high-value shipping. Often produced in the form of a dunnage rack, which is defined as a platform that raises items off the ground to prevent them from being compromised by moisture or vermin, solid plastics are more expensive but integral for protecting high-value items.

More common types that are likely to be well-known to anyone who’s ever ordered something online are bubble wrap, air pillows, kraft paper, and foam. Bubble wrap and air pillows provide cushioning and friction to make sure products don’t slide inside the boxes and are adequately protected from jostling. Kraft paper is eco-friendly, cost-effective and reusable recycled material that’s simply crinkled

All about dunnage: The whats, whys, and hows

Packaging is one element of e-commerce fulfillment that isn’t always fully considered. Many merchants focus on the design of their packaging, yes. Making it appealing to the customer. But when it comes to something that will protect the product during shipping? Often, sellers are left scratching their heads. Everyone knows, for example, that you can’t just throw an item into a large box and expect it to arrive to the customer undamaged and in perfect working order. With all the movement your average shipment undergoes, the goods would be bounced around in that giant box like a ping pong ball. But how do you protect your goods from damage during shipment?

A quick search on the internet might lead you to the term “dunnage”. But what is dunnage, and how is it used in shipping? How is it different from packaging? Are there different types of dunnage? How do you define it? And how do you make sure that you’re using it correctly?

Strictly defined, the word “dunnage” is used to describe packaging components used to secure and protect goods during the shipping process. It can be made from any sort of material, but common examples include corrugated cardboard, styrofoam pellets, crinkled paper, and bubble wrap. Wooden or metal frames used to secure crates on sea or air shipments also fall under this umbrella. As it stands, there are nine main types.

Hardwood dunnage is often used as a barrier between products and shipping crates to make sure that nothing is crushed during transit. This type of wooden dunnage can be assembled and disassembled multiple times simply by removing and replacing the nails, making it an environmentally-conscious method of protecting goods.

Some forms of dunnage are even baked into the packaging materials themselves. Cardboard, foam, and other low-cost options are often formed into something called a kit pack or a component pack, which holds all parts of a specific product in one single package. These improve efficiency and can offer some protection capabilities in their own right, but custom packaging specially designed to fit each individual piece can cost extra money merchants aren’t necessarily prepared to spend.

These considerations don’t begin and end in the box used to ship a product from point A to point B. Far from it. Dunnage is used in the warehouse, on pallets, on flatbeds, in trucks, in containers, and in loading to prevent damage at all points in the fulfillment and storage process. From the cloth blankets wrapped around large items such as furniture when loading or unloading them onto the truck to plastic wrap tightly enclosing boxes of water-sensitive goods while they’re traveling on a freight ship, special care is taken to ensure goods arrive to their end destination in one, unharmed piece.

We’ve defined our terms now, but how should an e-commerce merchant apply this knowledge to their day-to-day business operations? If you’re not regularly involved with the practice of shipping large objects across the ocean, you don’t have to concern yourself with the finer details, right?

Wrong. Even if you only ship products domestically, and goods that are relatively damage-resistant, there are still a number of best practices you can follow when it comes to packing and utilizing dunnage to make sure that it works the best it possibly can.

First, you should always use an appropriately sized box for whichever product you happen to be shipping. It doesn’t do any good to choose the largest box you have and fill it to the brim with packing materials. Rather than providing extra protection, the items will shift around in the box, and you’ll be left with bruised goods and a lot of wasted paper or plastic. At the same time, wedging something into a box barely big enough for the item meant to fit inside it and maybe a thin layer of bubble wrap is no good either. Instead, it’s paramount that you choose an appropriately sized box, with a couple inches on each side. This ensures that there’s enough room for the compression of packing materials during bumpier moments in the shipping process.

Second, when possible, try your best to choose environmentally friendly materials for packing. Dunnage made from paper, cardboard, or cellulose are preferable to that made of single-use plastics which will be thrown away and end up in the ocean or in a landfill somewhere. Luckily for merchants, biodegradable dunnage such as kraft paper or corrugated cardboard is often cheaper than single-use options such as air pillows, bubble wrap, or styrofoam pellets.

Last of all, you should make sure you’re using sufficient packaging to protect the goods being shipped. Be mindful of how far the goods have to travel, the material the items are made of, and the mode of transportation the carrier will be using. Will the package be jostled around often, or remain relatively steady? Is it at risk of becoming damp or outright wet? A sturdy item shipped short distances in a truck requires less meticulous packaging than a fragile item, or one that will travel long distances over a ship.

Bearing these points in mind will help you make the best possible decision for your goods and your business. It can be difficult to decide where to splurge and commit extra funds when there are so many parts of your e-commerce operation that could be optimized. However, by making these calculations and balancing the best protection possible with your budget constraints, you’re sure to find a solution that works marvelously.

In conclusion, dunnage is an often-overlooked but integral part of e-commerce shipping and fulfillment. Whether you’re utilizing kraft paper and bubble wrap to protect goods over short distances or whether you’re involved in complicated international shipping operations over water that require custom-built solutions, the selection of the correct packing materials can make or break your customer’s final experience. After all, customers prioritize receiving their products in excellent quality, without damage, every single time they place an order. In this economic climate where competition between merchants is so stiff, this is something that’s worth getting right.


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What is omnichannel fulfillment, and why is it important?

Oleg Mikhailenko

Co-Founder, CEO P2Pseller

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