Flexible Packaging Industry Positioned for Continued Strength in 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has left its fingerprints on nearly every business and industry, and flexible packaging production is hardly an exception. But, as a rapidly growing packaging segment prior to the pandemic, the flexible packaging segment has emerged from 2020 with growth opportunities for converters and a renewed appreciation among consumers for the benefits this packaging format provides.
In our recently released 2021 State of the Flexible Packaging Industry Report, Packaging Impressions Senior Editor Patrick Henry explores how multiple flexible packaging converters navigated the pandemic and shares their expectations for the future. Additionally, Henry spoke with Alison Keane, president of the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), who shared her perspectives on the state of the industry. Keith Vorst, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University, also provided his insights into the latest development in flexible packaging, some of which stem from the Polymer and Food Protection Consortium, which is part of Vorst’s department at Iowa State.
Growth and Investment
As we learn in this year’s state of the industry report, flexible packaging was not among the industries that saw a reduction in demand as a result of COVID-19. In fact, many businesses experienced an increase in demand, though not all of it was due to the pandemic.
For example, Kenneth Fontaine, president and CEO of AMGRAPH Packaging in Baltic, Conn., shared that his company has experienced strong growth over the past three years. Meanwhile, at Poly Print in Tucson, Ariz., Joe Genova, owner and VP, stated the company experienced approximately 20% growth in 2020, and was able to invest in the business throughout the year. This investment included a third 10-color Uteco flexographic press, along with additional sales staff, and increased capacity beyond the pressroom.
The new Uteco Onyx, Genova said, was part of a $5.5 million capital expenditure program, which also featured some innovative sustainability initiatives. In the year ahead, Genova shared that Poly Print will also be bringing a new slitter on board, and investing in quality control enhancements and waste reduction.
Digitally-printed flexible packaging is also on the upswing, as evidenced by Rootree, a Burlington, Ontario-based producer of flexible packaging specializing in digital printing and sustainability. President and CEO Philippe St.-Cyr shared that the company experienced 50% year-over-year growth in 2020, and is eying an addition of a new HP Indigo 25K digital press to supplement the two HP Indigo 20000 digital presses already in operation at Rootree.
Consumers Recognizing Flexible Packaging Advantages
While the flexible packaging industry has been on the rise for several years, one of the main concerns the industry has faced has been the growing anti-plastic sentiment among consumers. Despite many sustainability advantages that flexible packaging provides, pollution problems and difficulties in recycling have led to some brands and consumers seeking out plastic alternatives.
In her interview with Henry, Keane, president of the FPA, shared that one of the impacts of the pandemic was in how it reinforced the importance of packaging. As safety, security, and product protection became increasingly important to consumers, many began to soften their backlash against flexible packaging.
Sustainability and recycling are still important initiatives for the entire value chain, but Keane shared that consumers are expressing less desire to eliminate packaging. She added that some of the plastic bans that have been put into place were lifted during the pandemic as well.
There is still a ways to go in educating the consumer however, and Vorst explained that in many cases, consumers themselves haven’t gone the extra mile to carry out the end-of-life process in a more sustainable way. He explained that the perception of flexible packaging as “not recyclable” is not accurate. Rather, he said that “it’s recyclable, it’s just not being recycled.”
He explains that the flexible packaging industry is working hard to develop more sustainable and recyclable solutions, and there has been some significant progress on this front. The concern however, is consumers not being willing to adopt these solutions, or pay more for them.
Flexible Packaging Benefits Remain
As the industry and society overall emerges from the pandemic, the advantages of flexible packaging will continue to make it a packaging format in high demand. For example, Genova explained its light weight properties make it an excellent option for shipping, as it takes up noticeably less space than rigid structures. And in a world where e-commerce is on the rise, this can be highly advantageous.
From a functionality and appearance standpoint, Fontaine said innovation in flexible packaging has made it a great option for brands to consider. In addition to the superior graphics that can be applied to flexible packaging, its ability to be outfitted with resealable closures adds to its convenience and ability to keep food products fresh. And for consumers concerned with sustainability, Fontaine added that food waste outweighs the amount of flexible packaging sent to landfills, and flexible packaging is a highly-effective tool in preventing food waste overall.
With these advantages, innovations, and changing attitudes, flexible packaging is poised to continue the success it had built in recent years. For more on this exciting industry, check out our 2021 State of the Industry report.