Pouch with a problem – the flexible packaging sector

30 September 2016

With a current market projection of 1.27 trillion packaging units from Canadean and a value based at about $216 billion by multiple associations this year, flexible packaging remains one of the packaging industry’s biggest growth areas. The films and packaging forms that make up this market have seen great strides in technology and innovation, but are they doing enough to stay ahead?

Praised for their versatility and lightness, and providing consumers on-the-go packaging formats for their highly mobile lives, films and flexible packaging formats offer a lot to the packaging industry.

A film typically requires at least half the amount of material a bottle or container needs and, with ever-increasing waste regulations in place, offers the best weight-to-resource and weight-to-cost ratios. Flexible formats and films also run faster through packaging lines and machinery than other formats, bolstering the speed of manufacture. Combined with the efficiency of this low-waste process, flexible packaging and films require the minimal weight and material costs to protect and enhance products, reducing the overall price in value and resources.

Flexible foods

To understand the true impact of films in a non-scientific arena, one need not go any further than to track recent packaging launches, and take a rough count of the major innovations being delivered in film and flexible formats.

In the past three months alone, more than 50% of global new package launches have contained either an element of film or the complete format. A recent example includes E-Hydrate protein with electrolytes, a natural on-the-go protein powder, supplied as three single-serve pouches, to which water is added to reconstitute. A printed film laminate pouch with shaped side seals gives each pouch an inverted-bottle shape, and there is an unprinted visi-strip window area to one side of the back with a fill-level marker. The patent-pending new technology allows consumers to flat-pack their protein drink and ‘just add water’ when they want it.

In the baby-food market, Yummy Spoonfuls has launched frozen baby food in pouches with extended shelf life; they are also BPA-free and can be microwaved in the pack. It can be opened and reclosed easily to allow feeding on the go.

These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg; Canadean has logged 160 film or flexible packaging launches over the past few months. Most of the results, like the previous examples, focus on convenience, as that is the true differentiator of flexible and film packaging; it is a lightweight and easy-to-transport format.

In the current packaging market, personalisation is another big watchword and customers’ needs are constantly changing, but convenience is an essential feature for any innovative flexible pack.

Cost and convenience

“From a food perspective, the main factor in the growth of flexible packaging is that it is an efficient material to protect products,” says Thomas Delory, senior global category director for direct materials at Carlsberg. “Ease of use is also important, as are its benefits for transportation, marketing and dispensing. It is quite a cheap way to achieve the same results as other materials.

“Now that oil prices are falling, cheaper resins are available. Carlsberg uses a range of materials, from solid board to shrink film, and finds that foil is very cost-effective – and that’s always a factor for fast-moving consumer goods.”

How a package looks and fits on store shelves heavily influences the purchasing decisions of consumers.

Flexible packaging provides many options for differentiating appearance, such as graphical execution, special effects, transparency, and form and shape,” explains Kristian Berings, head of CSM Bakery Solutions’ European packaging department. “It also has a low material-to-product weight ratio and provides many functional options, such as strength and barrier properties to extend shelf life. It is cost-effective, allowing fast production in many applications, including bags, form fill and seal, flow wrap, stretching and shrinking, and disposal is also easy.

“Overall, it has many convenience-enhancing features and attributes. In terms of providing the optimal products for customers, the most important factor is in improving convenience with easy-opening, reclosable or smaller-sized packaging for single or on-the-go use,” he adds.

Take to the web

Flexible packaging not only supports the varied needs of brands and retailers, with convenient and eye-catching packaging that fills our shelves, but it is also increasingly coming into its own in the internet-retailing market. Where once we saw the bastion of brown cardboard boxes by Amazon, there are now more flexible options being considered, driven once again by consumer need. Dr Kim Houchens is the director of the customer packaging experience at Amazon, and is delighted by the focus and possibilities flexible packaging brings to online retailing.

“Our primary passion is eliminating wrap rage, which is what we call the frustration Amazon customers experience with poorly conceived or executed packaging,” she says. “And it is vital that we get this right; no matter how much has been spent, customers want their product to be of the highest quality, and to be delivered as quickly as possible and hassle-free. If, after these points have been met, the package falls apart or they have difficulty opening it, they will become disenchanted and potentially stop being customers.”

“We start with making packaging easy to open, eliminating materials like steel wire ties, clamshells and other choices that could cause frustration. Instead, we use flexible packaging that can easily fit through letterboxes and reach customers’ homes. We also strive for sustainable packaging that should use recyclable materials.

“Wherever possible, products should be shipped in their original packaging so that no superfluous shipping packaging is added. A flexible bag or pouch can easily surround any shape or size pack and, as it is made of a single material, it is easy to recycle and stream after life. Of course,  all of this is moot unless the packaging protects the product so that it arrives in the right condition every time. We use test products in the lab to ensure that anything that could impact the pack is considered and alleviated, and we consistently find flexible packaging and films to provide the best overall performance.”

Stick to the rules

While cost-efficiency and versatility continue to increase the popularity of flexible packaging, there could be a push in the other direction from regulators focusing on issues such as sustainability and waste reduction. WRAP regulations and EU packaging directives, for instance, address the amount of plastic that should be recycled. In light of this, many businesses are looking closely at the material they use with a view to reducing weight or increasing recyclability.

“Regulations hinder and help flexible packaging,” says Berings. “On one hand, it might mean a ban on using plastic in shopping bags, or, in some countries, an environmental tax on plastics. On the other hand, such regulations aim to improve food safety and limit food waste.” The key for companies is to keep pace with a constantly evolving regulatory landscape while maintaining optimal cost-efficiency.

“We might see new regulations coming in and there is a lot of discussion in the EU about the circular economy,” says Delory. “This is a concept we have embraced at Carlsberg, with our zero-waste concept. What you manufacture can go back into the biosphere or be reassembled into new products.

“There is a long way to go but regulators are readily discussing how to minimise the impact of packaging on the environment. The industries behind flexible packaging, however – mainly oil and chemical companies – employ thousands of people and regulators don’t want to destroy them.”

Canadean research is seeing a noticeable transition from glass to rigid plastics and flexible packaging despite the fact that these have less-positive environmental profiles. Nevertheless, the study notes that many consumers show little environmental concern compared with factors such as cost.

“A lot depends on consumer behaviour; within a population conscious of sustainability, you can see a variety of different behaviours depending on which aisle of a store people are standing in,” reveals Delory. “In the beauty aisle, some may be conscious of the chemicals in products. Meanwhile, shoppers might choose Fairtrade coffee from the hot drinks section but switch to ‘party mode’ when they move to the beer shelves, becoming less conscious of environmental issues. Regardless, Carlsberg supports zero-waste initiatives and believes that customers want sustainable products.”

Finding the balance

Flexible packaging is made from plastic and is, therefore, derived from fossil fuels, but its environmental profile  is less clear-cut when viewed from a long-term perspective.

“The image of shrink and plastic films has a negative environmental image but this is not so bad when you consider the total life-cycle assessment (LCA) of these products,” Delory points out. “Film has a better protective element and the biggest factor in food waste is the disposal of products that have passed their sell-by date. Flexible packaging extends sell-by dates at a relatively low cost.”

“LCA requires complex analysis. There are a lot of unknowns in terms of the impact of the material, although we are aware that flexible packaging cannot be recycled, so it is burned or sent to landfill. Environmental impact is a problem, as the material degrades into microparticles that could re-enter the food chain. If food is not packaged well enough, though, it never reaches the consumer and is lost in the supply chain, so there is a trade-off. The supply chain is usually very long but flexible packaging would not necessarily be needed if it were shorter,” he adds.

In today’s ethically focused packaging market, it is important to consider that the language used in packaging efforts
can occasionally confuse or distract consumers. One of the main offenders is the idea of a recyclable film or flexible packaging. When a consumer hears this, they will come to the conclusion that by placing a pouch or film into a recycling stream, they are doing their part for the environment and reducing waste to landfill. Films that have barriers or multiple layers, however, which comprises the majority of the market, cannot be recycled, as the film, layers and barriers cannot be separated in the recycling stream.

The benefits of a lightweight, low-cost and convenient pouch or film, therefore, have to be weighed against the reality that it is a single-journey package that will need to be replaced. Unfortunately, there is no simple single solution; multiple factors must be taken into account in the design, delivery and recovery of packaging.

To reduce the environmental impact of flexible packaging, many companies may decide to move away from laminated film to a recyclable, surface-printed LDPE film. Laminated flexible packs include glues and inks, and are difficult to recycle, and can also be difficult to sort in the waste stream. Meanwhile, biodegradable materials made from recycled or plant-based plastic will, over time, help to minimise waste, and there is a noticeable shift towards polyolefins derived from natural substances such as sugar cane.

The push from innovative plastic-manufacturing companies and convertors towards biodegradable or compostable packaging is certain to continue, and the focus will be on making innovation as cost-effective as possible while ensuring that products perform as well as the materials used today. Lightweighting is sure to be a top priority, but it is expected that there will be equal emphasis on ensuring that customer convenience is constantly improved.

The internet retail market is also a home for flexibles, minimising superfluous shipping packaging.
There has been a shift towards biodegradable or compostable packaging.
Consumer demand for convenient, light, compact and easily disposable packaging is met by a variety of flexible packaging forms – particularly pouches.
Flexible packaging and films are highly versatile, efficient and cheap, and are well suited to the task of protecting food products.
Flexible packaging can extend sell-by dates, minimising food waste.

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