What Is Dunnage?

Learn all about dunnage, like what it is, what it’s used for, and why it’s important when shipping goods to customers.

Jim Sharkey
November 17, 2023
Learn all about dunnage, like what it is, what it’s used for, and why it’s important when shipping goods to customers.

Dunnage plays a crucial role in the transportation and storage of goods, ensuring they arrive at their destination in pristine condition. Whether you're a business owner, logistics manager, or supply chain professional, understanding the ins and outs of dunnage can significantly enhance your operations.


We'll talk about the benefits it offers, the considerations to keep in mind, and the basics of its use — and some best practices for the maintenance, disposal, and recycling of dunnage.


What Is Dunnage?

Dunnage is the term for materials that safeguard and stabilize cargo during transport. It plays multiple roles: it cushions products, fills empty spaces to prevent shifting, secures heavy items in place, and can even provide insulation. This ensures that goods hold up during transit, from jolts and vibrations to atmospheric pressure changes.


Its application spans all modes of transport, from ocean freight to air travel. Dunnage is the key to delivering everything from delicate electronics, shielded from static and jostles, to perishable items, kept fresh with insulation, to large machinery, immobilized securely within a shipping container.


The materials used for dunnage vary widely, depending on the needs of the cargo. Options range from conventional materials like wood and cardboard to newer solutions like polyethylene foams and air cushioning systems. The selection is driven by the cargo's characteristics – for instance, anti-static foam for sensitive electronics or robust wood or steel supports for hefty equipment.


What Are the Main Dunnage Materials and Types?

A wide range of materials can be used for dunnage. Here are some common dunnage materials.


  • Wood: From sturdy lumber to versatile plywood, wood dunnage is a stalwart choice for bracing and stacking substantial items. Customizable in size, wood requires treatment for international transit to avert pest contamination.
  • Plastics: The plastic family offers a broad spectrum, including films and sheets that act as barriers to moisture, alongside bubbles and air pillows that cushion against shocks. Their lightness and adaptability make them a go-to for impact protection.
  • Foam: Conforming to the contours of delicate items, foams like polyethylene and polyurethane provide exceptional cushioning and can also insulate against temperature fluctuations.
  • Inflatable Air Bags: Air-filled bags stabilize cargo, ensuring it remains immobile during its journey. Their reusability and adjustability add to their appeal.
  • Corrugated Paper: For lighter products, corrugated paper offers an economical solution to prevent abrasion and snugly fill spaces.
  • Rubber: Rubber's non-slip qualities can help items stationary and secure during transit.
  • Fabric: Fabric dunnage, whether in the form of bags, covers, or sheets, ensures that sensitive items and surfaces remain protected.
  • Organic Materials: For those looking for eco-friendly options, materials like straw or cornstarch peanuts are considered, though they are less prevalent due to potential cleanliness and pest issues.

Selecting the appropriate dunnage involves weighing factors such as cargo characteristics, transportation mode, cost constraints, and environmental considerations. A thorough understanding of each material's capabilities guarantees that cargo is well-protected throughout its travels.


What Are the Benefits and Practical Uses of Dunnage?

Dunnage plays a key role in the realm of ecommerce shipping and logistics, offering a suite of benefits that enhance the transport process:


Protection and Stabilization

Dunnage's primary role is to shield goods from the perils of transit, including movement, moisture, and environmental elements. It ensures cargo remains firmly in place, averting shifts that could lead to imbalances or mishaps.


Void Filling

Filling the empty spaces in packaging with dunnage reduces the potential for friction and impact damage, especially in larger boxes. Strategic use of dunnage also enables shippers to maximize container space, which can lead to cost and environmental benefits.


Moisture and Contamination Control

Certain dunnage materials excel at absorbing moisture, thereby safeguarding humidity-sensitive items. Acting as a barrier, dunnage also keeps cargo free from contaminants that may be present in transport vessels.


Shock Absorption

Dunnage helps minimize the transmission of shocks and vibrations, making it crucial for keeping fragile, electronic, or otherwise delicate goods protected during transit.


Thermal Insulation

Insulative dunnage maintains the quality of temperature-sensitive products throughout their journey.


Dunnage provides customized solutions that improve the safety and efficiency of a wide array of product types. Its versatility in mitigating transit risks while remaining cost-effective cements its status as a cornerstone of the logistics sector.


What Are Some Considerations To Keep in Mind for Dunnage?

Navigating the regulatory landscape is a pivotal component of dunnage application, ensuring the safe and lawful transport of goods.


International Standards

Global shipping adheres to standards like ISPM 15, which mandates the treatment and marking of wood packaging to prevent pest infestations.


Transport Regulations

Bodies such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (IATA) prescribe dunnage standards for maritime and aerial freight, respectively, to ensure safety and protect cargo integrity.


Hazardous Materials

Transporting dangerous goods introduces additional guidelines. For instance, DOT and UN regulations specify dunnage requirements for securing hazardous substances.


Environmental Laws

Acts like the RCRA influence dunnage material selection and disposal, advocating for eco-friendly, responsible choices. The end-of-life for single-use dunnage can lead to significant waste accumulation, and embracing reusable dunnage options can minimize environmental strain.


Weight Regulations

National road weight restrictions may dictate the use of lighter dunnage materials to avoid penalties for overloading.


Material-Specific Rules

Some dunnage materials are governed by local regulations, such as restrictions on EPS in certain jurisdictions.


What Should You Know About Maintenance, Disposal, and Recycling of Dunnage?

The journey of dunnage encompasses far more than its role in safeguarding goods during transportation. Its upkeep, environmentally responsible disposal, and potential for recycling are pivotal in diminishing its ecological footprint.



To ensure dunnage can be used repeatedly, regular upkeep is essential. This includes cleaning and inspecting for any signs of wear or damage, as well as adopting correct storage methods. These practices are particularly vital for dunnage made from durable materials such as plastics, metals, textiles, and specific types of wood, as they extend the life and functionality of these protective supports.



Eventually, dunnage may no longer be fit for use or is designed to be disposable after a single use. In these cases, it's imperative to dispose of these materials thoughtfully. 


Adhering to the waste management regulations of one's locality — previously outlined — is a step towards ensuring that the disposal of these materials inflicts minimal environmental damage. Special attention is needed for materials like foams and certain plastics that do not naturally break down.


Recycling and Upcycling

The potential for recycling dunnage should always be a key consideration. Many materials, including cardboard and some plastics, can be reprocessed and transformed into new products. Recycling initiatives may vary by area and often necessitate the separation of materials into designated categories for proper recycling.


There are creative opportunities for dunnage to be repurposed through upcycling. This process can breathe new life into materials, such as transforming wooden dunnage into furniture or building supplies for community initiatives, further extending the utility of these materials beyond their initial purpose.


Manufacturer Take-Back Programs

Some manufacturers of dunnage offer programs that allow for the return of used materials. These programs enable the refurbishment or recycling of dunnage, effectively creating a circular economy around the product's lifecycle.



For dunnage made from biodegradable materials, proper disposal is crucial to ensure they break down correctly. This might involve sending them to industrial composting facilities or other settings that support the bio-degradation process.



In areas where recycling options are limited, dunnage that cannot be recycled may contribute to waste-to-energy programs. This process converts waste into a usable form of energy, offering an alternative to landfill use and helping to produce electricity or heat.


Incorporating a comprehensive plan for the maintenance, disposal, and recycling of dunnage into a company's logistics strategy is not only beneficial for the environment but also aligns with broader corporate social responsibility objectives.


The Bottom Line

Dunnage can help keep your shipped goods secure and free from damage. Dunnage materials like airbags, pallets, foam, or even crumpled paper help fill in empty spaces in packages, preventing the movement of goods and protecting them from damage during transportation.


Beyond shipping, dunnage also has applications in warehouses for storing goods. Using dunnage in storage spaces can prevent potential damage to goods by keeping them off the floor and separated from each other.


If you’re looking to make the most of your operations and shipping processes, reach out to me at Mochila to see how we can level up your ecommerce business with fulfillment solutions.





Shipping Hazardous Materials (Dangerous Goods) | UPS


Manufacturer Takeback Programs Vs. Independent Recyclers | OceanTech


Biodegradable Material - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

Let's Chat