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Quartz Obsession — Bubble wrap — Card 1
Sure, bubble wrap is exceptionally good at protecting a thing during shipment. But really, is packaging or popping its highest calling? Children and adults alike obsess over the stuff; it’s had cameos in several films highlighting the simple joy it provides. There are even phone apps that allow users to pop simulated bubble wrap.
Sealed Air, the company that invented the stuff back in the 1950s, branded their creation bubble wrap—a name no other company can use for sheets of plastic studded with air-filled bubbles, though protective packaging companies now sell bubble packing material in mailers, tubes, and rolls of all sizes. In 2015, Sealed Air announced a redesign that made the packaging material cheaper and more space efficient. Though light, rolls of bubble wrap are so bulky that they tend to be expensive to ship because of the space they take up. This new version arrives uninflated, and companies use a custom pump to add the air during packing. It also means that the sheets don’t pop. Elon Musk called the development “a sign of the apocalypse.”
How did bubble wrap become so ingrained in our lives and why are we obsessed with it? Let’s pop this bubble.
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Quartz Obsession — Bubble wrap — Card 2
$5 million: Annual Sealed Air sales in 1971
$3 billion: Annual Sealed Air sales in 2000
$20 billion: Worldwide protective packaging sales in 2013
6: Patents granted for bubble wrap
384,400 km (238,855 miles): Length of the total amount of bubble wrap Sealed Air produces yearly, which could stretch from Earth to the Moon
560ºF (293°C): Temperature machines reach to create bubble wrap sheets
$24.99: Price of a novelty bubble wrap jumpsuit
1 million: Mugen Puchi Puchis, keychains with eight push buttons designed to simulate bubble wrap popping, sold in two months when it was introduced in Japan
815 lbs (370 kg): Weight of a pumpkin dropped from a 35-foot (11-m) crane in October 2000 to see if bubble wrap could protect the gourd from being smashed—it worked
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Quartz Obsession — Bubble wrap — Card 3
In the mid-1950s, inventors Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes were working on developing a new style of textured wallpaper. In 1957, they put two sheets of shower curtain through a heat-sealing machine in an experiment. They weren’t satisfied with the pattern of trapped air bubbles that emerged from a design perspective, but they did come up with several other uses for the sealing technique, and were granted several patents for embossing and laminating processes.
In 1960 Fielding and Chavannes founded Sealed Air, and soon the new company got its first big break. IBM had recently introduced the 1401 Data Processing System, one of the first computers to be widely affordable and useful for businesses. Fielding and Chavannes pitched bubble wrap as packaging material, making a deal with IBM, replacing wadded up newspaper in cardboard boxes everywhere, and shaping the history of bubble wrap to come.
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Quartz Obsession — Bubble wrap — Card 4
“Probably the closest humans will ever get to experiencing what popping a robot’s pimples would be like.”
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Quartz Obsession — Bubble wrap — Card 6
Packing and popping might be the most obvious uses for bubble wrap, but there are many alternative uses.
🏊 Pool covers: For a while, Sealed Air made pool covers when they realized the air bubbles captured the sunlight and retained heat so the pool water stayed warm. However, the bubbles weren’t poppable.
📚 Backpacks: On film and television sets that depict schools or campuses, backpacks will be stuffed with bubble wrap to make them look like they’re filled with books without the extra weight.
🌡Hypothermia prevention: In Norway, emergency medicine technicians will sometimes use bubble wrap when transporting patients as a way to prevent hypothermia from setting in. But a study has shown bubble wrap might not be very effective, only giving as much warmth as a sleeping bag.
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Quartz Obsession — Bubble wrap — Card 7
1957: Alfred Fielding and Swiss chemist Marc Chavannes invent bubble wrap.
1960: Fielding and Chavannes found Sealed Air.
1961: Sealed Air begins using bubble wrap for packing purposes.
1971: T.J. Dermot Dunphy becomes CEO of Sealed Air, helping the company finally turn a profit.
1993: Fielding and Chavannes are inducted into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame alongside Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein.
1998: The Bubble Wrap Book is published and looks at alternative uses for the material, including stuffing your wallet with bubble wrap to impress dates.
2001: An Indiana-based radio station creates an annual bubble wrap appreciation day, usually held on the last Monday in January.
2004: Bubble wrap is put on display at the Museum of Modern Art as part of its Architecture and Design collection.
2016: Sealed Air begins to move its headquarters from New Jersey to Charlotte, North Carolina.
2016: The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York nominates bubble wrap, as well as Care Bears and Dungeons & Dragons, to be inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. Bubble wrap is not accepted.
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Quartz Obsession — Bubble wrap — Card 8
As a young child, Howard Fielding, son of bubble wrap inventor Alfred Fielding, was most likely the first person to discover the pleasure of popping bubble wrap. “I remember looking at the stuff and my instinct was to squeeze it,” he told Smithsonian magazine.
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Quartz Obsession — Bubble wrap — Card 9
While it has not been well studied, a large body of anecdotal evidence indicates that not only do we enjoy popping bubble wrap, it serves as a stress reliever for many of us.
Using tactile experiences to reduce stress is not new. In 1992, psychology professor Kathleen M. Dillon published a study in the journal Psychological Reports that found that in a small sampling of undergraduates, popping bubble wrap was an effective stress management tool, with a very low barrier to entry, in terms of cost and skill. “In ancient Greece it was customary, and is still in so much of Asia, to carry a smooth-surfaced stone, or amber, or jade, sometimes called a ‘fingering piece,’” The Cut quotes from Dillon’s write-up of the study.
Institutions have taken note of the power of bubble wrap, creating stations in universities where students can pop bubbles for stress relief before exams. Sealed Air itself provides staff “stress boxes” that dispense small sheets of bubble wrap for tense moments. Crinkling and popping bubble wrap also feature prominently in ASMR videos, the phenomenon in which certain noises create a sense of calm pleasure in the brain.
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Quartz Obsession — Bubble wrap — Card 10
Artist Bradley Hart uses bubble wrap as his canvas, and injects paint into each individual tiny air bubble using syringes. His artwork has a flipside; Hart displays his work on the reverse as well, showing how the paint runs and combines creating an impressionistic version.
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Quartz Obsession — Bubble wrap — Card 11
In an effort to be sustainable and environmentally friendly, British school deputy headteacher Rachael Robinson wore a bubble-wrap wedding dress, with a three-foot train. It was designed by students and their parents for a fashion show using recyclable materials at the primary school where Robinson works. “There was quite a lot of popping as I walked up the aisle, I was very nervous but having the bubbles to pop at hand really helped,” she told the Daily Mail.
Bubble wrap can be recycled, though not all recycling programs accept it. “Some types of recyclables, like paper and thick plastic like milk jugs, are easy to sell to contractors who can find a place to recycle them into material that can be used again,” writes Alana Semuels in Time magazine. “But flimsier plastic like cutlery, juice boxes, and bubble wrap, are more difficult to turn into other products.” The best thing to do with it is to reuse it, whether that’s as packing material, or as a wedding dress.