Is Your Business Using the Right Packaging Tape?

Why Top Companies are Switching from Plastic Tape to Paper Tape

A company’s decision on what type of packaging tape to use often seems like a simple one. It is frequently a reflex decision based on the tape that is most familiar, the one closest at hand, or the least expensive to purchase.

However, as anyone familiar with the impact that packaging and shipping effectiveness has on a company’s bottom line will tell you, choosing carton sealing tape is a more complex choice than it appears. The choice should be made knowingly, because there are wide-ranging ramifications for making a casual, inappropriate packaging tape choice including:

  • Decreased productivity
  • Product damage
  • Material waste
  • Product “carton press and grab” theft
  • Increased labor costs
  • Product contamination
  • Missed branding opportunities
  • Tarnished reputation and loss of business

Conversely, there are many benefits from choosing the right type of tape. So, how do you make the best choice for your business so that you can have the peace of mind to know your products will arrive intact and that you are making a good financial decision?

What follows is both science and common-sense insights from the practical experience of leading companies worldwide that can be used as the foundation for making a packaging tape selection. It provides guidance for anyone tasked with either confirming that their shipping operations are optimized or spearheading a change in direction that will help the company get more return on its packing and shipping investment.

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Our guide to packaging tape options is a great reference tool to have on hand to help answer common questions from your team and overcome objections when making a packaging purchasing decision.

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What are the Different Types of Packing Tape?

There are two primary types of packing tape that are used to seal cartons: plastic pressure-sensitive tape and paper water-activated tape. Each has different physical properties, methods of application, appearance, and performance. It is important that companies go beyond simple decision drivers like cost and availability, and consider how these attributes can impact their operations.

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Plastic Pressure-Sensitive Tape

Plastic pressure-sensitive tape (PST) is what is referred to as a “surface mount” type of tape. This carton sealing tape is manufactured by applying a dry adhesive to a plastic film. Both the adhesive, which can have many different strength formulations, and the film, which comes in a variety of widths, are petroleum-based materials.

Pressure-sensitive tape is generally applied with a hand-held “tape gun.” The pressure applied after the tape is dispensed, typically with the fingers or palm as a follow up, causes the tape to adhere to the surface of the carton.

Plastic pressure-sensitive tape can be further divided into moving tape and shipping tape or packaging tape.

Moving Tape

Moving tape generally does not have to be as strong or adhere as well as shipping tape for a few reasons. First, cartons used in a move from one location to another tend to be handled fewer times than product shipments – potentially just being carried onto a moving truck at the point of origin and off the truck at the destination – so the tape has to endure less stress.

Second, there is minimal risk of theft during a move, as cartons tend to be in the care of the same crew from start to finish. And finally, the person who receives the carton is often the one who sealed it. Consequently, there are not many negative repercussions if the condition of the seal is not optimal on arrival.

Shipping Tape

Shipping tape, on the other hand, is often thicker and has a stickier adhesive. Cartons are likely in the distribution network for much longer and handled many more times between their origin and destination, subjecting them to significant stress.

They also tend to be handled by many people, increasing the risk of theft. And, in this scenario, the person who receives the shipment (often a customer) tends to have elevated expectations about the condition of the seal on arrival.

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Paper Water-Activated Tape

Paper water-activated tape (WAT) is typically made of white or tan (Kraft) paper with a starch-based adhesive. It comes in a variety of widths and thicknesses. 

Also called gummed paper tape, gum tape, Kraft paper tape, paper packing tape, or brown paper tape, water-activated tape is applied using a manual or electric paper tape dispenser that cuts the tape to the desired length and automatically applies the appropriate amount of water to activate the adhesive. When the tape is applied to a carton, the adhesive penetrates the surface, forming a permanent bond.

If you’ve ever tried to remove gummed paper tape from a box, you probably struggled and quickly learned that the correct approach is to cut it at the point where the flaps come together, especially if you intend to reuse the carton.

For more demanding jobs, paper packing tape can contain fiberglass filaments. This reinforced packing tape is even stronger than standard paper tape, which is already exceptionally strong.

paper tape

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How Do Paper Water-Activated Tape and Plastic Pressure-Sensitive Tape Perform?

When evaluating what type of packaging tape will best meet a company’s needs, it is important to look at how plastic pressure-sensitive tape and paper water-activated tape compare in key characteristics and benefits.

boxes sealed with paper tape

Strength

Because it has “paper” in its full name, people unfamiliar with Kraft paper tape may surmise that it is easily torn and not particularly strong or durable. However, paper packing tape forms a permanent bond with the carton material, effectively making it as strong as the cardboard or other material to which it is applied. Plus, reinforced packing tape has fiberglass filaments that make it even stronger. This allows gummed paper tape to seal heavy boxes with a single strip and endure a lengthy, and often rough, shipping process.

While useful for many purposes, plastic carton sealing tape is not, strip-for-strip, nearly as strong as water-activated tape. Typically, packing crews will have to use many times more strips of plastic tape to try to achieve the same effect as one strip of paper packaging tape.

Fragile

Durability/Reliability

Here again, once applied, gummed paper tape essentially “becomes one” with the carton. As a result, it is as durable and reliable as the box itself. This includes maintaining a strong, tamper-evident seal in damp, hot, cold, dry, dusty, and other adverse conditions. Water-activated tape also resists punctures and tearing.

Pressure-sensitive tape’s durability and reliability falls well below that of water-activated tape in carton sealing applications. In fact, plastic carton sealing tape tends to fail quickly when punctured or torn, allowing a shipped package to open in transit and expose or spill its contents.

water activated tape for theft prevention

Theft Prevention

Because its adhesive creates a more tenuous, surface-level connection with a carton, plastic tape does very little to prevent “carton press and grab” thefts. Thieves can gain access to package contents easily with no visible sign that a carton has been breached.

Gummed paper tape’s superior seal makes it very difficult for thieves to get into a carton and commit a “crime of opportunity” when nobody is looking. They would have to go to the effort of using a knife or other sharp implement to slice the full length of the seal in order to lift the flaps and remove contents. While nothing short of a locked metal box can prevent a person from stealing if they set their mind to it, a corrugated cardboard box sealed with paper packing tape presents enough a challenge to discourage most would-be thieves.

pretty package

Appearance

One strip of water-activated paper tape can effectively seal a package, giving it a neat, professional appearance. Especially for a customer purchasing from a company for the first time, this positive first impression can be critically important.

Plastic pressure-sensitive tape, on the other hand, tends to require multiple strips to achieve a trustworthy seal for shipped packages. This can produce a rough, unfinished look that doesn’t represent a company well.

Looking for custom packaging tape? Paper tape can also have information or images printed on it in black and white or up to four colors. This allows a company to “brand” its tape, and that capability can save money by allowing the organization to purchase generic shipping cartons rather than having them custom printed with their logo.

warehouse efficiency

Warehouse Efficiency

The efficiency with which cartons can be sealed has a direct effect on labor costs and, consequently, profitability. This is true in any shipping operation, and especially so in high-volume environments. Efficiency starts with accessibility, and the space-conscious design of a water-activated paper tape dispenser allows it to fit into virtually any packaging station layout.

When it comes to using paper packing tape, its one-strip seal is much more efficient than applying multiple strips of plastic tape.

safe packing station

Safety

Companies have both a moral duty and a legal obligation to protect their employees from injury. There is a business benefit as well: keeping employees safe helps maintain high productivity. The physical movements required to apply plastic pressure-sensitive tape with a tape gun can lead to repetitive motion injuries that can sideline employees for extended periods as they rest the affected joints. In extreme cases, they may even have to undergo surgery.

Gummed paper tape can be moistened and dispensed with the push of a button on an electric water-activated tape dispenser. Plus, applying a strip of water-activated tape to a carton is a very natural motion that can be performed in a variety of ways, preventing dangerous repetitive movements.

In addition, water-activated paper tape dispensers from Better Packages are either UL-listed or manufactured to Underwriter Laboratory’s exacting standards, including:

  • Detachable electrical cord with enough length to provide for operator safety and comfort
  • Flame-retardant plastic
  • Steel side frames
  • Zinc-plated stainless-steel parts
  • Thermal cutoff that prevents overheating of the motor when the unit is used for long periods
  • Safety interlock switch that disables the cutting blade when the front cover is open
boy in box

Eco-Friendly

Both the film and the adhesive used to manufacture plastic pressure-sensitive tape are petroleum-based materials. As a result, they are not particularly environmentally friendly. Plus, like all plastic products, pressure-sensitive tape does not readily decompose and will exist in landfills virtually unchanged for countless generations.

Paper water-activated tape is produced using paper and a non-toxic, starch-based adhesive. Neither material is harmful to the environment, making paper tape a more eco-conscious choice. It has all the strength and durability to meet a company’s needs today, but when it is no longer needed, it will decompose more effectively than plastic tape.

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How are the Two Types of Packaging Tape Dispensed?

Plastic pressure-sensitive tape and paper water-activated tape are used to seal cartons following two different processes.

Sealing Cartons with Pressure-Sensitive Tape

Plastic pressure-sensitive tape is typically applied using a hand-held tape gun. First, the user finds the leading edge of the tape roll. Then they press that section of tape to the side of the carton and pull the tape gun and along the seam to be sealed while applying constant pressure. That pressure is critical, as the tape as no ability to form a bond other than through the force applied by the user. The tape is then pressed down on the carton.

Pressure-sensitive tape typically requires multiple strips to close a package for shipping, so the process is repeated. A user may also choose to apply tape to additional seams, in which case they must rotate the package to get the proper angle for the use of the tape gun. Overall, it is a very physical and often repetitive process to seal a single carton.

Sealing Cartons with Water-Activated Tape

Reinforced packing tape or Kraft paper tape is applied using a manual or electric paper tape dispenser. These tape machines distribute the appropriate amount of moisture to activate the adhesive and then dispense pre-cut strips of user-specified length. The tape is placed on seams by hand and can be applied with light pressure since the adhesive penetrates the carton surface and forms a strong bond with it.

That bond is created quickly, and the package is safely and securely sealed. Typically, only one strip of paper packing tape is needed. If additional pieces are desired for added security on the sides of the carton (forming an “H” pattern), the process is repeated. Physical manipulation of the carton in order to apply the tape is minimal.

WATCH OUR VIDEO to learn how to seal a carton with water-activated paper tape.

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The Cost of Plastic Pressure-Sensitive Tape vs. Paper Water-Activated Tape

In assessing the cost of plastic tape and paper tape, it is important to look at the actual per-package expense. Pressure-sensitive tape typically costs less per foot than water-activated tape, but packers generally use multiple strips of plastic tape to close a carton.  The fact that workers can create a strong seal by applying one strip of paper tape changes the cost equation.

In order to properly seal a carton with plastic carton sealing tape and prepare it for the rigors of shipping, workers generally must apply more than one strip. With each additional strip (and often two or more additional strips are used), the cost differential decreases and then quickly diminishes.

Plus, with the application of plastic tape being very inexact, strips are often longer than needed adding to the total material usage. What’s more, anyone who has used a tape gun knows that there is a great deal of waste that occurs in preparing and completing a strip, as well as losses from the tape becoming adhered to itself during the application process.

Additional Hidden Costs of Plastic Tape

Beyond the expenses noted above, which are simply based on the quantity of tape used, there are a number of hidden and potential costs associated with using plastic carton sealing tape on shipping cartons that must be considered. They include:

Product Damage

A few pennies that may be saved on shipping materials are immediately lost when a package opens in transit and product is damage or stolen. One incident can easily cost a company hundreds or even thousands of dollars in replacement product, investigation efforts, etc.

Reputation Damage

First impressions count. If the carton that a client receives looks rough and careless due to the use of multiple strips of tape, it can have a negative impact on their impression of the company. What’s more, consumers today can express their disappointment and displeasure with a purchase to a large social media audience with just a few minutes at a keyboard.

 

Missed Marketing Opportunities

Plastic tape is generally not branded like custom water-activated tape. People who see the package in the shipping stream, or after it has been received, may not be enticed into learning more about the company and its products.

In addition, any missed opportunity means also missing out on the ripple effect that each new customer can create when they share their experience with others.

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The Science of Carton Sealing

There is plenty of “anecdotal evidence” available about the benefits of paper tape for carton sealing. People who have used both plastic pressure-sensitive tape and paper water-activated tape are quick to share their opinions on the two types, and when specific carton sealing benefits are required, the preference for gummed paper tape is clear. However, paper packing tape’s advantages are also confirmed by science.

A detailed study by SGS North America, a leading testing and verification company, produced compelling statistics. The company was provided with 1,300 cardboard cartons and spent two full workdays sealing them – one day with water-activated tape and the other with pressure-sensitive tape. Results were provided in a number of areas, including:

Productivity

Carton sealing productivity is 21 percent higher using a gummed paper tape dispenser and water-activated tape versus a hand-held tape gun with pressure-sensitive tape. 

Tape Integrity

Cartons sealed with paper tape remained intact and prevented tampering; while those sealed with plastic tape were not secure and were easily accessed without any sign of tampering. Tape integrity was maintained in a variety of environments, including high humidity, cold temperatures and dusty.

Adhesion

Testing demonstrated gummed paper tape’s superior bonding ability and therefore package safety. When the gummed paper tape was removed from cartons, it also removed 80 percent of the carton’s fibers, revealing its strength and tamper-evidence. Plastic pressure-sensitive tape bonded poorly and was easily removed from the carton without showing any evidence of the tape’s removal.

Material Usage

The average amount of tape needed to seal a single carton using water-activated tape was eight percent less than using pressure-sensitive tape (when one strip of plastic tape was applied).

In short, water-activated paper tape outperformed pressure-sensitive plastic tape in four criteria critical to efficient and effective carton sealing packing operations.

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Choosing Between Plastic Tape and Paper Tape: Key Questions to Ask

Ultimately, reaching the right answer regarding whether plastic pressure-sensitive tape or paper water-activated tape is right for a company’s purposes starts with asking the right questions. For example:

What is being shipped?

What a company is shipping should be a major factor in its packing tape selection. Organizations that ship low-weight, low-value products may not need a tape that provides superior performance. If that is the case, plastic tape may be the right choice. On the other hand, companies that put heavy or high-value product into the distribution network are wise to invest in shipping materials proven to help ensure safe delivery.

How important is productivity?

For companies that only prepare and ship a handful of cartons each day, packer productivity may not be important. This low volume might be easily handled with pressure-sensitive tape and a tape gun. At higher volumes, however, water-activated tape can provide a competitive advantage. As noted above, independent testing has shown that employees are 21 percent more productive when using water-activated tape. Both in terms of the amount of product that goes out the door each day and how much work a company is getting from its shipping team members, that number is significant.

What environmental conditions will shipped packages encounter?

There are at least three environments a package will encounter on its journey: the packing site, one or more transportation vehicles, and the destination site. Plastic tape does not perform well in cold, dusty, or humid conditions. The longer a package spends in those kinds of environments, the more likely the tape is to fail. Paper tape maintains a secure seal in virtually any environment that a package might find itself in. Hot or cold, damp or dry, the bond formed between the tape and the carton surface remains strong.  

Is there value in a “clean” presentation?

Here again, the answer, obviously, is “Yes!” No company wants a recipient to wrinkle their nose at the sight of a package that looks sloppy and carelessly prepared. Unfortunately, the more strips of shipping tape that are required to seal a package, the harder it is to maintain a neat appearance. One strip of gummed paper tape can seal a box and ensure that it arrives at its destination securely closed and with a look that reflects well on the company that sent it.

Is brand awareness important?

It would be rare to find an organization that would say that brand awareness is not important. Even well-known companies with solid reputations need to support their positive image. Plastic pressure-sensitive tape typically is not branded. This means that it does nothing to keep a company top-of-mind with anyone who sees the package. Paper water-activated tape, on the other hand, can be branded in many ways, which provides many benefits. One of the most important is that custom-printed Kraft tape turns the carton into a dynamic “mobile billboard” that can introduce the company or further develop its brand.

The short answers above make a strong case for water-activated tape, and there are many other resources available that elaborate on them.

The Company (or Companies) Behind the Product

After a company decides on plastic pressure-sensitive tape or paper water-activated tape there is another decision to be made: which provider to work with. It is very important to look into the organization behind the product. How long have they been in operation? Companies benefit from working with a provider that knows the business, and that has been around and will be around to support future needs. Is dispensing packing tape a major component of their business, or just one small aspect in a large product line? There is much to be said for a provider that specializes in a particular product and knows it inside and out.

Another factor to consider is whether other companies have chosen to work with the provider, and if so, which ones? Seeing highly regarded national and international brands on their customer list is a good indication that they provide exceptional products and services. Large companies have plenty of resources to focus on vendor research, and they never settle for second-rate suppliers.

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The Takeaway on Shipping Tape

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In today’s fiercely competitive business environment, every advantage counts. Not surprisingly, forward-thinking companies are investing considerable time and effort in researching their options for packing materials. In the same way that strong, lightweight corrugated cardboard has proven to provide better and more cost-effective performance than other types of cartons, paper water-activated tape and manual or electric paper tape dispensers are now widely viewed as the smart choice for packaging solutions.

Every company’s situation is unique. Each organization should do its own assessment, taking into account the full spectrum of factors, from the types of products it ships to its shipping materials budget. Some will determine that plastic pressure-sensitive tape is right for them. Many others, however, will discover that from relative cost to performance characteristics, water-activated tape is the way to go.

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