The case for flexible packaging
The case for flexible packaging
Flexible packaging has carved out a dominant position and looks set to continue growing, despite the prospect of environmental legislation that could push companies to seek greener alternatives. JIm Banks investigates the secret of its success and considers how its use might change in the years ahead
Flexible packaging is highly prized for it suitability for a range of products and scope for cost-effective innovation. It is predicted to maintain its current rate of growth, and, perhaps even increase its market share.
A study of trends by market research firm, Canadean, suggests that flexible will be the fastest-growing sector of the packaging between 2013 and 2018. A projected 4.5% rise in global volumes in that period would outstrip increases of 4.2% and 3.3% for rigid plastics and glass respectively.
The report suggests that flexible packaging will be the most successful sector partly because it already accounts for over half of the total market share, and estimates that it will account for over 55% of the total market by 2018, up from 54.3% in 2013.
Flexible packaging offers numerous benefits to manufacturers, the first of which concerns weight. Due to waste regulations, flexible offers the best weight to cost ratio. Then there is the issue of speed. Flexible packaging allows machines to run faster than is possible with other materials and formats. The last and perhaps most important advantage is cost: minimal weight and relatively easy conversion reduces the price of each pack.
Open and shut case
Customers’ changing needs make convenience an essential feature. Easy opening and (re)closing are top priorities for food packaging, while other innovative features include steam valves for in-the-bag cooking and alternative opening formats.
"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, global category manager for secondary and tertiary packaging in the procurement division of Carlsberg Breweries.
"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 result 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 find that foil is very cost-effective, and that’s always a factor for fast-moving consumer goods."
The visual impact of packaging exerts a powerful influence on consumers’ purchasing decisions.
"Flexible packaging provides many options for differentiating appearance, like graphical execution, special effects and transparency, as well as in its 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, and is cost-effective, allowing for fast production in many applications, including bags, form fill seal, flow wrap, stretching, shrinking. 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.
It’s a WRAP
While cost-efficiency and versatility continue to increase the popularity of flexible packaging, there could a push in the other direction from regulators focusing on issues such as sustainability and waste reduction. WRAP (waste and resource action programme) regulations and the EU packaging directives, for instance, address the amount of plastics that should be recycled. Many businesses are therefore looking closely at the materials they use with a view to reducing weight, or increasing recyclability.
"Regulations hinder and help flexible packaging," says Berings. "On the one hand, there is a ban on using plastic in shopping bags and, in some countries, an environmental tax on plastics. On the other are regulations that 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 European Union about the circular economy, which is a concept that we have embraced here at Carlsberg with our zero-waste concept," says Delory. "What you manufacture can get back into the biosphere, or be reassembled into new products.
"There is a very long way to go, but regulators are discussing how to minimise the impact of packaging on the environment. The industries behind flexible packaging – mainly the oil and chemical companies – employ thousands of people, however, and regulators don’t want to destroy them."
According to the Canadean research, there is noticeable transition from glass to rigid plastics and flexible packaging, which have a less positive environmental profile. Nevertheless, the study notes that many consumers show little concern for environmental characteristics, compared to factors such as cost.
"A lot depends on consumer behaviour and, within a population that is conscious of sustainability, you can see a variety of different behaviours, depending on which aisle of a shop people are in," reveals Delory. "When in the beauty aisle, some may be conscious of the chemicals in products. They might choose Fairtrade coffee from the hot drinks section, but moving to the beer shelves causes a switch into party mode, in which shoppers are less conscious of environmental issues. Nevertheless, Carlsberg supports zero-waste and believes 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 as bad when you look at the total lifecycle assessment (LCA) of these products, because 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," Delory points out. "Flexible packaging extends the sell-by date at a relatively low cost."
"LCA requires complex analysis. There are a lot of unknowns in terms of the impact of the material, though 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 micro-particles 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 short," he adds.
To reduce 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. 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 plastics manufacturing companies and convertors towards biodegradable or compostable packaging is certain to continue, and the focus will be on making innovations as cost-effective as possible, while ensuring that they perform as well as the materials used today. Lightweighting is also sure to be a top priority, but there will be equal emphasis on ensuring that customer convenience is constantly improved.
"I believe that more convenience features will be built into packaging in 2015," says Berings at CSM Bakery Solutions. "There will be new product launches for us, too, particularly in the form of pre-made pouch packaging,"