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Trends shift from rigid packaging to flexible packaging

Trends shift from rigid packaging to flexible packaging

The global rigid plastic packaging industry is forecast to grow during the period 2013-18 by 5.2% to US$174.3 bln, as per Smithers Pira. According to the market report, the rigid plastic packaging industry has developed largely at the expense of traditional pack types such as glass bottles and jars, liquid cartons and metal cans. Rigid plastic packaging is often favoured over traditional pack types for a combination of properties, including lighter weight, lower comparative cost, design flexibility and the ease of recycling. Public pressure is mounting towards brand owners and retailers to reduce the environmental impact of the plastic packaging market. In response, packagers are reducing the weight and using materials that are either biodegradable or derived from sustainable sources. Technology, economic, social and demographic influences all play key roles in growth markets. Developments such as better barrier solutions, improved resin formulations, faster and more efficient processing machinery and solutions for hot-filling and aseptic filling of plastic packaging are driving consumption. While opportunities still exist for the further adoption of rigid plastic packaging at the expense of traditional pack types, key application areas such as carbonated soft drinks and mineral water, have reached market saturation in developed markets. Light-weighting and the growing uptake of recycled plastics will also restrain consumption of virgin polymer. The rigid plastic packaging market faces growing competition from the flexible plastic packaging industry, and in particular flexible stand-up pouch packaging in various food and beverage applications. PET has overtaken PE as the leading polymer for rigid packaging overall accounting for a projected share of just over one-third of world rigid plastic packaging market consumption in 2013. While PE is losing market share, PET and PP are continuing to gain share. PVC is now only a minor polymer for rigid plastic packaging, and both PS, and more particularly EPS, have also lost ground to PP. Other polymers, most notable including bioplastics, and barrier polymers such as EVOH, are also gaining market share. Growth will be lower than the global market average rate in the more mature regional markets of Western Europe and North America over the 5 years included in the forecast. However, this will be offset by forecasted higher growth in the less developed markets of Eastern Europe, South & Central America and the Middle East & Africa. Asia is also projected to grow sales at higher than the global average rate with China and India growing demand at double-digit rates.

The global flexible packaging market will grow at a rate of 3.5% pa until the year 2018, to reach US$231 bln according to a major new study by Smithers Pira. This impressive rate of expansion is higher than the gross domestic product (GDP), suggesting that the flexible packaging market is growing more quickly than well-developed and traditional rigid packaging markets, and rapidly gaining market share. The way in which consumers view and interact with packaged products is changing. There is a growing focus on convenience and particularly on sustainability. Traditional pack types are being replaced by innovative and flexible options designed to meet these consumer needs. The report from Smithers Pira states that the world consumer flexible packaging market has picked up significantly since the global economic downturn of 2008-9. The market tonnage in this segment is estimated at 24.3 mln tons in 2013 and is forecast to grow at a CAGR of 4.1% during the period 2013-18, to reach a total of 29.8 mln tons. Asia-Pacific region in particular has registered both volume and value growth for flexible packaging during the 2012-13 period. Asia-Pacific has the largest regional flexible packaging market size with 38% of global market volume, and is also predicted to be the fastest growing market for consumer flexible packaging over the forecast period. Meanwhile, the US is the largest national market for this type of packaging, with a volume share of nearly 14% in 2013. The replacement of traditional pack types with flexible packaging has also acted as a major driver for this expansion. In addition, the industry has benefited from a range of new products being developed by brand owners in an increasingly competitive consumer marketplace. Barrier flexible packaging will continue to grow in importance as consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) and major retail chains demand greater product protection and longer shelf life. A variety of barrier technologies have been commercialised that preserve, protect, and optimise product shelf life, reduce the need for preservatives, provide transparency and gloss, and serve as a printing substrate. Without such barrier packaging, perishable goods such as food, beverages and pharmaceuticals would be susceptible to a wide range of deterioration processes. Therefore this type of technology has begun to replace more traditional pack types. There have been many exciting new product developments which have helped to demonstrate to consumers the true potential of flexible packaging. Smithers Pira examines the latest flexible packaging market trends, as well as the main advantages of flexible packaging over more traditional rigid packaging solutions.
1. Lightweighting
The bottled water sector is a prime example of a market in which materials have gotten lighter and lighter over time, producing less waste. However, manufacturers have now reached the stage where PET bottles cannot be made much lighter. Therefore, the next step in this process is to replace plastic bottles with lightweight, flexible pouches. This development has been gaining traction over the years, although widespread usage has not yet occurred. The primary reason for this has been issues with high-speed filling - while PET bottles can be filled at speeds of 1,500 packages per minute, the process of filling pouches falls behind at only 400 packages per minute. However, some of the newer PET bottle-filling technologies are designed to transport the bottle through the cycle via the neck, a breakthrough which will also allow the introduction of pouches using the same technology. This is forecast to occur as early as 2014, and the use of pouches would allow water companies to reduce their packaging weight by 50%.
2. Ease of decorating
Part of the total cost of any rigid package is the label, and these are applied as part of the filling process. Labels are supplied from a different supplier than the bottles, meaning that they often become a bottleneck in the filling process. With flexible packaging such as pouches, the converting of the pouch generally includes full printing features along with the lamination of the films if necessary. This printing only marginally increases the cost of the pouch and has no effect on the filling process itself. Printing options for flexible packaging are endless, and can be instantaneously changed if required. Another key decorating feature is the printing of security or brand identity graphics, which is just being developed for flexible packaging. The challenge associated with this new technology is: how can security graphics be included in the packaging design without making it obvious to the potential counterfeiter? Solutions include pigment additives which only appear under certain lighting and inks which disappear and reappear depending on environmental conditions. Such technology simply isn't possible with rigid alternatives.
3. Barrier properties
One of the main advantages of flexible packaging over rigid packaging is the ability of the company to "dial-in" the appropriate barrier for the product and end-use. Many products, such as juices, wines and milk, require a reasonable oxygen barrier. Bottles made from PET, glass or multi-layer paperboard laminates provide a barrier for all products whether it is required or not. A flexible package can be supplied with barrier properties which can provide anything from moisture and aroma protection to essentially the same barriers as glass. Aluminium foil has been used for many years as the ultimate flexible barrier material, although its properties are compromised by the most recent flexible packaging developments, such as stand-up pouches. When creased in this way the foil can fracture, leading to pinholes which let in oxygen, water and light. To combat this, new flexible materials such as styrene-acrylonitrile (SAN) have been developed as foil-replacement. SAN is tough even in thin layers, and recent production methods have improved the flexible properties of this resin.
4. Packaging variation and dispensing
Packages made from flexible plastic films can be made into practically any shape imaginable, and the inclusion of handles, fitments and opening features is quite straightforward. Pouches often have advanced dispensing functions such as screw-top caps and laser-scored tear features. Flexible packaging can also be used to enhance rigid packs; an example being shrink labels used for plastic bottles. These labels not only provide attractive decoration features, but also additional levels of barrier protection against oxygen or light. Other key technical developments include fitments for use with flexible packaging for liquids, with traditional dispensing taps leading to connecting valves, one-way dispensers and pop-up straws. Connecting valves allow consumers to connect a pouch with dishwashing soap directly to the appliance, so the proper amount of detergent is dosed every cycle and no clean-up is required.
5. Larger sizes
As technology has improved, the flexible packaging market size has increased and the ability to produce packaging of ever-larger sizes has become possible. Larger retail flexible packages are now becoming the norm as consumer packaged goods and retail outlets alike take advantage of larger-format packaging. For example, the classic paperboard carton and unprinted flexible liner used for dry cereals is rapidly being replaced with flexible pouches incorporating high-end graphics and easy to reclose features. These packages are typically much larger. Incorporating many of the benefits of flexible packaging into a large format package for food-service liquids, the pouch makes it easy to dispense product, and makes sure every last drop is utilised. We can expect to see many new types of pouches being introduced for large format liquid packaging as consumers better understand the benefits and converters develop new technologies to their fullest.

As per Smithers Pira, the innovation in and implementation of smart and active packaging over the next 10 years will be the key disruptive factor affecting the flexible packaging industry. So far, these technologies have been retarded by high cost, consumer resistance to items such as sachets in packaging, and concerns about excessive packaging. However, the deployment of intelligent packaging is expected to become much more frequent with decreasing cost, increasing emphasis on food safety, anti-counterfeiting, new regulations and brand owner/consumer demand. These technologies, particularly together with printed electronics and digital printing, will become more widespread in the years to 2023. This will lead to dramatically expanded perceptions of the function of packaging, beyond the traditional containment, preservation, protection and identification to include a wide range of monitoring, tracking, warning, remediation, authentication, communication and brand protection. According to the report, the second most disruptive technology in flexible packaging is recyclability. Because of the small amount of material used in a flexible package, it generates much less waste than other formats. However, it is not currently feasible to mechanically recycle postconsumer flexible packaging because of its thin film structure, multi-layered composition and often contamination by food waste. This situation could create problems with the sustainability and recyclability goals of many major corporations or with the reduced or zero landfill policies of many governments. More easily recyclable materials and barrier structures, including monolayers, are expected to be introduced over the next 10 years, but this will not resolve the problem unless improved collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure is implemented.

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