The global market for flexible packaging is forecast to grow at an annual average rate of 3.4 percent over the next five years, and is expected to reach US$248 billion by 2020. Offering a huge potential for technology suppliers, packaging converters and brand owners, flexible packaging can be used in many different applications across the industry.
In fact, it is the most economical method to package, preserve and distribute food, beverages, other consumables, pharmaceuticals and other products that need extended shelf-life. Being ultimately customisable, it can be designed with barrier properties tailored to fit the products being packaged and their end-uses; this is in contrast to other barrier packaging formats that generally provide a one-size-fits-all approach.
Today, flexible packaging is available in the market in a wide variety of innovative shapes, sizes and appearances, and can include components, such as handles; and opening and reclosing features, such as zips and spouts. Especially for beverages, flexible packaging holds a great potential for manufacturers as the packaging would be less or negligibly limited by product size and weight.
With such differences in types of flexible packaging, which trends are important for manufacturers of today, and which should they look out for as potential achievers in the near future?
Lightweighting is already one of the dominant themes for packaging today, and it will likely hold its position for the year. This favours flexible plastic formats, which have a lower bill or material usage and promise extra savings across the pack’s lifecycle. Lightweight packaging would minimises transit costs between the converter, packer/filler, retailer and end user; and it takes up less space when disposed of than rigid packaging.
Companies are also investing in equipment that allows flexible pack construction at the filling location from roll materials, which eliminates transportation of ready-formed but empty packaging.
In 2016, increasingly rigid packaging—such as PET bottles—is reaching the limit to which current formats can lightweighted without compromising structural integrity. The next step for the industry is to replace rigid bottles with even lighter weight flexible pouches. This has started to occur but is not yet widespread, mostly because of the current lower fill line speeds of pouches versus bottles.
To improve this, one current and main avenue being pursued to boost filling speeds borrows advances made in rigid bottle fill lines—transporting containers by their necks rather than bodies. This has therefore started to see pouch packs move away from existing ‘walking beam’ fill lines, where the need to move pouches through the machine limits performance to around 50-60 cycles per minute, due to the intermittent motion under stationary fill heads.
Another solution being pursued by firms like Italy’s IMA Industries with its FillShape platform, and German-owned Wild Indag, is to use a rotary-based system. In these, partially premade pouches are loaded, filled, and sealed through a series of rotary drums or turrets, very much like rigid bottle filler. Fill speeds of at least 350 pouches per minute are predicted for the first generation of rotary equipment, and higher speeds will likely be achievable once converters dedicate capital and floor space to the new systems.
Flexible packaging uses less resources and energy than other forms of packaging. It provides significant reductions in packaging costs, materials use and transport costs as well as certain performance advantages over rigid packaging. Use of flexible packaging can minimise package transport costs between the converter, packer/filler, retailer and end user. It not only takes up less space when empty than rigid packaging, but can also be constructed on the spot from roll materials at the filling location, thereby minimising transportation of ready-formed empty packaging.
A key trend for flexible plastic packaging is continued downgauging as the combination of environmental pressures and high polymer prices make customers demand even thinner films.
This downgauging of plastic films will continue even though many of the traditional films are reaching the limits of this trend. The flexible packaging industry will begin to promote more of the ‘pre-cycling’ benefits of these packages versus rigids as the combination of environmental pressures and uncertain polymer prices persist. No declines for paper and aluminium foil are forecast as demand for them reached the bottom line in many regions.
At the other end of the spectrum to thinner films is the rise and importance of high-performance films. Food packaging films are trending towards high-performance film structures that are less permeable to increase shelf life and enhance flavours. A growth is being observed in the transition of items packaged in rigid containers to high quality flexible packages, and this includes even non-food packaging applications that are industrial and agricultural.
An increasing share of premium products—including products sold in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP)—is also favourable for flexible packaging in baked goods. Some of these products are gluten-free bread, breakfast goods, such as croissants, pancakes, partly baked bread, and rolls; specialty bread; and cakes.
In fact, contributing to this increase use of flexible packaging is also a rising pressure from retailers to extend shelf-life, and a shift in foodservice sandwich bread from frozen to MAP-packaged bread.
The ongoing success of flexible packaging as a replacement for glass and metal packages, particularly for retorted and hot-filled products, can be attributed directly to the substantial improvements in barrier properties of plastic films, and particularly clear plastic films.
One of the advantages of flexible packaging is the brand owner’s ability to ‘dial in’ the barrier-based on product and shelf-life requirements. With glass and metal packaging, very high barriers are incorporated whether they are needed or not. For example, packaging refrigerated milk in a glass container is completely unnecessary to maintain product shelf life. Milk oxidises very slowly at refrigerated temperatures and therefore does not require a barrier package at all.
The other extreme would be wine, which—even at refrigerated temperatures—reacts with oxygen very quickly and is suitable for a glass container. Flexible packaging can be easily designed for both types of products and all levels of moisture and oxygen barrier needs in both clear and opaque formats. For the most part, barrier flexible packaging for retail products is a lamination of several plies of plastic, so the level of barrier necessary can be accomplished through one or more of the plies.
As more and more consumers lead increasingly busy and hectic lifestyles, they do not have the time to cook meals from scratch, preferring to opt for convenient mealtime solutions instead. This puts ready meals in new flexible packaging formats in a prime position to take advantage of the current social and economic trends.
Packaged fresh meat, fish & poultry consumption will grow at a faster rate than unpackaged produce from now till 2020. This trend is explained by consumer demand for more convenient solutions and the growing dominance of the large supermarkets where packaged foods provide longer shelf life.
Chilled food consumption has grown steadily during over last decade, driven by increasing numbers in supermarkets and hypermarkets, especially in developing markets, and consumer demand for convenience products that are precooked, pre-roasted or pre-sliced. Growth in the pre-sliced sector and in premium lines has promoted growing demand for MAP packaging. Demand for chilled food is also being driven by a greater variety of ready meals, fresh pasta, seafood and exotic meats, and a trend towards more convenience food purchases by time-conscious consumers.
Bio-Derived And Bio-Degradable Technologies
In the past few years, a number of new product launches involving bio-based plastic packaging have taken place. The proliferation of bio-based plastic films continues with polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) and polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTMT) showing the most promise on the materials side of the equation, and thermoplastic starch (TPS) films on the petroleum replacement side.
Brazil’s Braskem Green Polyethene (PE) has made large strides on the latter, with much of the PE consumed in Brazil coming from locally grown sugar cane raw materials. Recently, this sugarcane based PE has also replaced the petroleum based ones from US-based bakery Bimbo Bakeries USA in its Eureka! Organic Bread bags. While these bags are only 36 percent bio-based, this represents a significant change, especially in a package that is usually associated with a very low cost.
There are also other evidences of new flexible packaging materials being created by companies. One example is a bag for potatoes that is manufactured partly from potato starch, by Emerald Packaging, a US–based flexible packaging converter. The film is 25 percent potato starch resin and 75 percent low-density polyethylene mixture, and the company claims this resultant film is stronger than 100 percent low-density polyethylene film.
Another example is the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin based on sugarcane from Toyota’s Tsusho Technologies. Films made from this resin are making their way into the market as a replacement for traditional PET films without suffering any of the typical processing challenges often found with biomass films.
Also from Japan, vacuum-deposited barrier films based on PET biomass films have been launched by Dai Nippon Printing. These vacuum-based films are produced from sugar cane and other ethanol sources and combined with petroleum based components to reduce the carbon footprint by 10 percent, or more, versus traditional barrier PET films.
Flexible packaging is gaining traction today throughout not only the beverage industry, but that of food as well, and manufacturers would do well to keep these trends in mind when they venture into flexible packaging for their products.