FPA Meeting Highlights Industry's Success and Tackles Challenges
Stability and steady growth have marked the success of the flexible packaging industry in recent years, said Curt Begle in his opening presentation at the 2019 Flexible Packaging Association Annual Meeting, held March 6-8 at the Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch in Scottsdale, Ariz. However, to ensure flexible packaging continues on an upward trajectory, he stressed the importance of ongoing innovation and promotion of the value these packages provide.
Begle, the chairman of the FPA Board of Directors and president of the health, hygiene and specialty businesses at Berry Global, explained that while the flexible packaging segment is among the healthiest in the packaging industry, it is not without its challenges. In particular, backlash against the use of plastic has put flexible packaging companies on the defensive regarding their sustainability impact. Because of this, Begle explained the importance of all stakeholders in the flexible packaging industry coming together in both improving the sustainability attributes of flexible packaging, but also in educating brands and consumers about its existing benefits, such as food waste reduction, which cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions.
“To make sure the future is bright, we need to advance technology, educate the government and educate consumers,” Begle said. “We also need to advance ownership, not just from the brands, but from the consumers themselves.”
As is tradition during the FPA Annual Meeting, a selection of some of the best examples of flexible packaging took center stage, on display throughout the event. These packages were the entries in the FPA’s 2019 Flexible Packaging Achievement Awards Competition, which are judged on categories including expanding the use of flexible packaging, printing and shelf impact, packaging excellence, sustainability and technical innovation.
This year, the competition’s top honor, the Highest Achievement Award, was presented to Bemis Company for its 12-pack Cooler Bag it produced for Molson Coors. The reusable bag stood out from the competition with its portability aspects provided by the built in handle, and the convenience it provides consumers, who can add ice directly to the bag and reseal it at the top. In addition to the Highest Achievement Award, the 12-pack Cooler Bag received gold in Expanding the Use of Flexible Packaging and Printing and Shelf Impact. It also received silver in Packaging Excellence.
Other Gold Award winners included:
- TC Transcontinental for Sustainability and Packaging Excellence (Harney & Sons Master Tea Blenders Pouch)
- Plastic Packaging Technologies for Printing & Shelf Impact (Nutro Grain Ultra Free Dog Food Bag)
- Vonco Products for Technical Innovation (Willow® Pump Leak-Proof Pouch)
The strength of the flexible packaging industry was also showcased in the form of the latest statistics. Begle stated that flexible packaging represents 19% of the total packaging industry in the U.S., totaling $31.8 billion. Though flexible packaging is prevalent in nearly every market segment, Begle explained that food is where the format dominates, as 49%, or $15.6 billion, of U.S. flexible packaging output is produced for the food segment.
Attendees also received an update on the state of flexible packaging in Europe from Jan Homan, the honorary chairman of Flexible Packaging Europe and a senior advisor for Constantia Flexibles. Homan explained that on a global scale, Europe represents 17% of the flexible packaging industry, with Western Europe representing 14% market share and Eastern Europe representing 3%.
In terms of print technology, Begle explained that flexographic printing is still far and away the dominant technology, at approximately 75% of total flexible packaging output, but pointed out that digital’s presence in the segment is increasing.
Regarding the association, Begle assured the members in attendance that the FPA remains a vigilant advocate of the industry’s success. Led by President & CEO Alison Keane, the association has taken significant strides in advocating for its members by promoting its sustainability attributes and by getting in front of government officials to find a solution to the aluminum tariffs that have had a significant impact on the industry.
“I can promise you the FPA will be vigilant ... getting on the front end of educating congressmen and getting back to the consumers,” Begle said.
To conclude the first day of presentations, Alex Chausovsky, senior consulting advisor for ITR Economics, provided an update on the state of the U.S. economy and how the executives in attendance could prepare for some upcoming changes.
Chausovsky explained that the economy has rebounded spectacularly since the recession of 2008, currently standing 20% larger than during the recession. However, he cautioned attendees to not expect this rapid growth to continue, explaining that a slowdown is expected in 2019. The good news, Chausovsky said, is that the slowdown is going to be both minimal and brief, with a 0.5% reduction expected this year. Because the slowdown will likely lead many companies to see their own growth reach a point of hesitation, this period will represent an opportunity for some long term planning.
“It’s going to be fairly brief and mild,” Chausovsky said. “It will give you a chance to catch your breath. A lot of companies have gone all out, and have not been able to do long term strategic thinking.”
In particular, Chausovsky recommended that companies use this period of economic slowing for future-focused decision making. This could mean focusing on locking customers into multi-year contracts to ride out the low points, as well as pulling the trigger on expansion or capital expenditure projects, as the slowdown could lead to better deals.
Sustainability was another key theme of the meeting, and how the industry can better promote its environmental benefits along with continued innovation toward greener solutions. With backlash against plastic on the rise, flexible packaging producers have come under fire as plastic pollution — particularly in the world’s oceans — has become a top concern among consumers.
To discuss the pollution problem specifically, a panel discussion featuring representatives from Bemis Co., Novolex and BioLogiQ shed light on the ocean plastics issue and how advancements in recyclability, compostability and biodegradability can be part of the solution.
Bill Jackson, VP and CTO of Bemis Co., explained that flexible packaging has come a long way in its recyclability, with an increasing number of products that can enter the recycle stream via in-store drop off. However, Jackson stated that consumers will be better enticed to recycle flexible packaging if infrastructure improvements make it easier to do so. He urged attendees to work with local governments to make flexible packaging recycling more accessible, as well as promoting product reuse. Communication is another key factor, Jackson said, and the flexible packaging industry needs to promote a recyclability message, in addition to its more well-known sustainability attributes.
“Food waste, and safety and sterility is a great message, but it can’t be the only message,” he said.
On the composting front, Adrianne Tipton, VP of new product development for Novolex, explained that a top priority for the industry should be working to increase the number of composting facilities that accept food packaging. With so many different types of composting facilities and various standards and certifications to adhere to, it can be difficult for flexible packaging producers and their customers to develop the right kind of compostable package.
Bob Lilienfeld, VP of marketing and sustainability for BioLogiQ, provided context around biodegradability and where it fits into the sustainability equation. BioLogiQ, Lilienfeld explains, specializes in the production of a product it calls NuPlastiQ, a biopolymer made primarily from plant-based carbohydrates.
While Lilienfeld explained that biodegradation is the ideal end process for a package if it happens to be removed from a closed-loop system, the industry should consider it a “last line of defense” in sustainability after reuse, reduce and recycling of packaging. Even if a product is biodegradable, Lilienfeld explained that if it doesn’t completely biodegrade, the remainder is still waste. And even if a product does fully biodegrade, it can emit greenhouse gases.
“Consumers must be educated to ensure that they don’t simply toss compostable or marine biodegradable packaging into the environment because they think it will go away,” he said.
Visiting the meeting from outside the industry, Tammie Jo Shults served as this year’s keynote speaker, offering inspiration and leadership lessons to attendees. Shults, a former Navy aviator, was among the first female F/A-18 Hornet pilots. But, she gained widespread acclaim in her current position as a Southwest Airlines captain. In April of last year, Shults was captaining a flight from New York to Dallas, when an engine exploded after takeoff.
Relying on her preparation, experience and trust in the flight crew, Shults successfully diverted the plane, landing in Philadelphia and saving 148 lives. Shults explains that even though they only get a few minutes together before a flight, she strives to develop a bond with the entire flight crew, establishing trust and ensuring everyone has what they need for a successful flight. Though she was in control of the plane as captain, Shults said the flight crew’s ability to tend to passengers and provide information to the cockpit during a time of chaos was instrumental in the flight’s successful landing.
“Trusting my people was one of the most important things I did that day,” Shults said.
The Flexible Packaging Association will reconvene for its Fall Executive Conference on October 10 at the InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile. The 2020 Annual Meeting, which marks the association’s 70th anniversary, will be held March 4-6, 2020, at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort in Bonita Springs, Fla.