Versatility will drive growth of flexible packaging

29 December 2017

As consumer demands have changed over the years, flexible packaging has become the popular choice for a wide range of products. Dave Howell assesses pressure points on converters regarding this versatile packaging form, and how these are driving innovations with flexible substrates and form factor design.

The versatility of flexible packaging has led to its steady rise in popularity over the past five years – a progression that has led to a volley of new packaging innovations.

According to a review by PCI Wood Mackenzie, the European marketplace is set to have a steady 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 market growth.

“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 life-cycle view, flexible packaging often has a lower carbon footprint than traditional packaging formats.”

The shape of the European flexible-packaging market has been rapidly changing with major M&A activity including 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.

With an increased demand for more flexible options, converters that want to stay ahead of the curve will need to become increasingly innovative with their offerings – no mean feat when the pressure is on to create personalised, regionalised and eco-friendly products at increasingly faster pace.

Consumer demand

Material suppliers have seen the potential opportunities for flexible packaging in many sectors, which is why the industry has been making investments in new substrates.

One such 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 applications.

Another was revealed at Labelexpo by eBeam Technologies. The next-generation printer 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 popularity for several years, and their influence continues to grow. 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 seeking new packaging experiences from brands.

Georg Kasperkovitz, CEO of Consumer Packaging at Mondi Group outlines the importance of meeting customer need for convenient and functional packaging: “CornerPack, which won the German Packaging Prize this year, offers a step change in convenience. 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,” he concludes.

Converter markets

For converters, the core drivers for packaging innovation will always be brand requirements, which 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,” explains Graham Houlder, founder and managing director of SLOOP Consulting. “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. CEFLEX is one such collaborative project, consisting of over 40 companies from all parts of the flexiblepackaging 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 also 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 these varied needs 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 beverages,” he explains. “Flexible packaging for home and personal-care products is also growing, with adoption varying 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 are 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 market researcher Global Data, 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 undoubtedly 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.

Mondi Group’s CornerPack won the 2017 German Packaging Prize.

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