The future is flexible
As consumer demands have changed, flexible packaging has become a highly popular choice for a wide-range of products. Dave Howell assesses pressure points on converters, and how these are driving innovation with flexible substrates and form factor design
Flexible packaging has made steady progress over the past five years as consumers continue to appreciate the benefits that this packaging form can offer them. According to its review of the European marketplace, PCI Wood Mackenzie forecast a 2.2% year-on-year growth, reaching $18.7 billion by 2021. Italy, Poland and Turkey all show substantial growth of over 3% as changing market conditions, alterations in consumer behaviour and inward investment by brands all contribute to their market growths.
“Increasingly, brand owners are switching from other packaging types to flexibles because of the convenience, portability and design options it offers,” explains Luca Zerbini, vice-president of marketing, R&D and sustainability at Amcor Flexibles EMEA. “Additionally, from a lifecycle view, flexible packaging often has a lower carbon footprint than traditional packaging formats.”
The shape of the European flexible-packaging market has also been rapidly changing shape with major M&A activity; the acquisition of Americk Packaging in the UK, Centroplast in Italy and three businesses based in the Netherlands – Lemapack Flexible Packaging, Schut Flexible Packaging and Hellema Verpakkingen. Recently, Mondi has also made a similar number of purchases to further consolidate the marketplace.
With an increased demand for more flexible packaging option, converters that want to stay ahead of the packaging curve will need to become increasingly innovative with their offerings; no mean feat when the pressure is on to create personalised, regionalised, environmentally friendly offerings at an ever-quicker pace. One company striving to meet this demand is Shanvalley Innovative Food Company, which used TIPA’s fully compostable flexible film for their Karma Free and Karma Elevate product ranges.
Material suppliers can see the opportunities for flexible packaging in many sectors, which is why the industry has been making investments in new substrates. One offering comes from Uflex, which recently announced its new active flexible packaging material with anti-microbial properties. The film can extend the shelf life of foodstuffs by several days, making it an ideal substrate for many flexible-packaging applications.
The expansion of flexible packaging poses challenges as well as opportunities, however. Take the use of variable printing for example; moving these technologies to flexible substrates has been a focus for the industry for some time. At Labelexpo, visitors saw eBeam Technologies’ solution that enables digital end-to-end narrow web output for indirect food-contact flexible packaging and labels. As the new machine uses photoinitiator-free inkjet ebeam-curable inks from INX Digital, the output is ideal for foodstuff markets.
Stand-up pouches have, of course, been gaining in popularity for several years. Converters such as Mondi have been innovating with some high-profile brands using this technology.
Two years ago, the converter partnered with Twinings to develop a pouch that had high shelf appeal. The unique product incorporated a zipper and transparent window to attract customers who seeks new packaging experiences from brands.
Meeting consumer need is an essential aspect of flexible packaging, as Georg Kasperkovitz, CEO at Consumer Packaging, Mondi Group outlined.
“CornerPack, which won the German Packaging Prize this year, offers a step change in convenience,” he explains. “It solves the vexing problem of snack bags that explode when you open them and tear from top to bottom. The bag’s corner tears away easily – along a laser-cut pathway – leaving its integrity intact. We create joy by giving buyers packaging that reflects their life choices. As an example, surface finish can make all the difference. PaperPack does just this by lending a more natural look and feel to packaging – papery haptics and see-through windows make shoppers feel more in touch with their favorite foods.”
For converters, the core drivers for packaging innovation will always be brand requirements that are themselves impacted by regulation, but also the changing attitudes of their customers. Having an integrated approach to packaging design will include some form of flexible materials as these are rapidly becoming the norm across the packaging development landscape.
“Converters and other players in the flexible-packaging value chain have realised the value of collaborating to maximise the added value of these resource-efficient and functional packaging formats. Not only to design them increasingly for the circular economy, but also so that they can re-enter the circular economy again as valuable secondary materials,” exlplains Graham Houlder, founder and managing director of SLOOP Consulting. “CEFLEX is one such collaborative project, consisting of over 40 companies from all parts of the flexible-packaging value chain, but there are many others such as Plasticircle, PCEP (Polyolefins circular economy platform), the EMF NPEC projects and MRF (materials recovery for the future in the US).”
In addition, Kasperkovitz also pointed out that converters need to look closely at their changing markets to ensure that flexible packaging produced meets these needs.
“A converter like Mondi needs not only to be aware of the trends, but also to help shape them,” he says. “Today, this means a lot of things. Global demographic shifts demand answers to questions like: how can we best meet the needs of smaller households? What are the habits of the emerging middle class in India and China? But there are also social questions such as: how sustainable is this packaging? Is it recyclable? Is it designed for secondary use? Does it, in the final analysis, have a passive – or even better – a positive impact on the environment? Converters need to tailor their operations not just to meet forecasted trends, but to create new trends – responsible trends that are in line with the evolution of global consumer behaviour and its local varieties.”
Amcor Flexibles’ Luca Zerbini comments on the varied needs of flexible packaging consumers across the globe and how these are developing.
“We, especially, have seen an increase in the demand for stand-up pouches across multiple markets, particularly for food and some beverages,” he explains. “Flexible packaging for home and personal care products is also growing, and adoption varies from region-to-region. In parts of Asia Pacific, the sellable unit for years has been the sachet, whereas in Western Europe, sachets for cosmetic products were usually confined to promotional activities. The times are changing, however. The personal care and cosmetic aisles in Boots, Sephora, Carrefour and other European retailers increasingly show brands replacing bottles, tubes and jars with sachets, stand-up pouches and flow wraps.”
According to research from Canadean, nearly 800 billion units of flexible packaging will be consumed throughout 2018. What this means in practice is that flexible packaging will expand its share of the food packaging market to over half (53.1 %), illustrating a continuing shift in food packaging to flexible substrates.
Flexible packaging will continue to focus on the food sectors, but these will be joined by other sectors including FMCG, where consumers are looking for innovations to help them reduce their environmental impact, deliver easier recycling and disposal, as well new packaging experiences.