The Changing Shape of Flexible Packaging
It's probably no surprise to flexible package printers and converters that the various markets they serve are expanding. While not quite growing by leaps and bounds, flexible packaging is on the verge of being on a roll, and the future is bright.
Marla Donahue, president of the Flexible Packaging Association, says the U.S. flexible packaging market grew by about 2.8 percent between 2012 and 2013, climbing to $27.2 billion in sales, about the level prior to the recession that began in 2008. And that's on track to continue: FPA estimates growth of about 3.4 percent though 2014.
These seemingly modest increases tend to hide the broader trend. "The growth of flexible packaging has been an evolution rather than a revolution, with most growth in food products," notes Donahue. "Flexible packaging for food products has increased from 57 to 62 percent over the past few years."
Behind this are changes in how many products are being packaged, most notably the shift from some type of rigid container to a flexible one. "Some of the growth has been a result of the conversion from rigid formats to flexible packaging, and there is a significant amount of growth potential in the future," says Donahue.
Indeed, a host of products from beverages to dairy items to motor oil are showing up in flexible containers. "The range of products showing up in flexible containers has grown," notes Bob Leahey, associate director at industry researcher InfoTrends. "Brand owners seeking to distinguish products at retail are doing 'new things' with packaging. For some, this is switching to shaped bottles, but it's also moving from bottles or cans into flexible." (See "Chasing the Moment of Truth," packagePRINTING, March 2014.)
This sea change opens the way to pure opportunity for converters. Pet foods, sports drinks, wine and spirits, and other categories have seen brand extensions and multiple SKUs result in a switch to or broadened use of flexible. "Much of this is reinforced by the need to keep inventory space and supply chains lean, optimize shelf space, reduce weight, and so on," adds Leahey.
One strong category is specialty foods, such as gourmet coffee, tea and the like—applications where flexible can add value, shelf-appeal and added convenience. "Another spot is the growth of single serve products and prepared foods," notes Leahey. "These are basically new product categories and a great fit for flexible."
Donahue agrees, citing bagged salads, microwavable vegetables and entire meals. "One of the most recent FPA Achievement Award entries was a new package for microwaving small pre-made hamburgers [sliders]. This new package enables the burger to cook without affecting the texture of the bun. Another is a home version of soft-serve ice cream in a flexible package that provides the same swirl we know from soft ice cream stores." All of these present opportunities for package printers and converters to gain a bigger share of brand owners' wallets by offering a broader range of flexible packaging options. (See sidebar, "The Envelope Please.")
Some aspects of convenience can make flexible irresistible to brand owners. Witness the popularity of standup pouches with mechanical features, such as pour spouts. "Convenience is valued and neatness helps," says Leahey. "Like being able to re-seal the container." Flexible containers that can be securely re-sealed retain the advantage glass and PET bottles have over cans.
One winner at the FPA awards, for example, was a flexible standup wine pouch with a tap for easy dispensing. Another innovative pouch was made with an understanding of markert needs: a standup pouch with re-closeable spout holding 2-stroke engine oil for snowmobiles. Snowmoble enthusiasts who do long trips usually carry extra oil, and a soft container that can easily be stashed as luggage has a lot of appeal. The same is true for marine applications, where storage space is often at a premium.
Losing a little weight is always good
Another key advantage of flexible that plays across every product is weight and a less bulky form factor. Lower weight is part of the industry-wide trend of "lightweighting" and flexible provides significant advantages. Packaged goods companies are quick to recognize that flexible containers allow for more efficient palletizing and require less space in corrugated boxes, so more product can be shipped at one time, lowering transportation costs. Not only that, mega-retailers such as Walmart and Target are starting to require vendors to use more flexible packaging. Make no mistake, the market clout of these players will have a significant impact on the way brands think about packaging. As a result, flexible containers are likely to become the way more packaged goods—especially food—are sold at retail.
Donahue believes retail and institutional food segments have the largest potential and will have a relatively fast "changeover" time in switching into flexible packaging. Other smaller opportunities include toys and games, detergents, personal care, bulk fruit and vegetable shipments, and military packaging. Although highly specialized, many pharmaceutical applications, such as pills and operating room supplies, are also being converted because flexible packaging can provide a sterile environment until the product is needed.
"Flexible packaging does many things at once," says Donahue. "It creates great shelf appeal, offers consumer convenience and prolonged shelf life, plus has reduced transportation costs for fuel and emissions generated."
Sustainability and recycling
One issue that—at least for the moment—looms as a dark cloud over flexible is that of sustainability and recycling. The laminated or extruded materials that make up flexible packages can be energy intensive to produce and make curbside recycling difficult or impossible. Unlike the established processes for cans, glass and plastics, few communities have efficient ways to accept and recycle empty flexible containers. To address that, brand owners such as Nestlé and Kraft are experimenting with solutions to find ways to help recycling centers handle flexible packages.
"The inability to recycle easily does concern consumers," says Leahey. "Compounding the issue, used flexible packages can contain food remnants or liquid. Solutions might include containers that a consumer can rinse easily."
Once recycling is an option, making it happen is largely a matter of consumer education. Having to rinse out containers may not be much of an issue because many consumers already clean out certain types of recyclable containers—peanut butter jars come to mind—so easily rinsed flexible packaging would not be a big leap.
And bear in mind that packaging industry suppliers are nothing if not innovative, notes Leahey. "Look for solutions that will be marked as recyclable, maybe with instructions such as,'Recycle with plastic shopping bags or with [specified] plastics.'" Leahey also expects some substrate suppliers to offer substrates that are co-extrusions of the same films so that the laminate, for instance, is all PP and won't require separation of layers for recycling.
Flexible is clearly a leading home of innovation and potential in packaging. In many ways, it is where some of the best thinking and imagination are being applied. The growth, while not rapid, remains steady and is only going to become stronger as market forces drive more brands to take advantage of the potential of flexible packaging. Are you flexible enough to sieze the opportunity? pP