Bend the rules7 May 2019
Matthew Rogerson, with help from GlobalData, investigates the latest innovations in flexible packaging and takes a closer look at the size of the market and why it’s such a favourite for so many companies in different sectors across the globe.
While different market reports have slight variations on the exact dollar figure of the flexible packaging market, one thing that is consistently clear is that it is the biggest part of the packaging mix – industry wide and globally. The latest information from GlobalData shows that food is the largest market for flexible packaging, with over 1 trillion packaging units to be made in 2019 ( perhaps unsurprisingly, as it is the single largest market). For perspective, that’s twice the size of the nearest material (rigid plastics at a mere 513 billion units). What is it that makes flexible packaging such a popular choice, that in the face of growing concerns over plastic waste and recycling it continues to be the dominant packaging material?
For clarification, at its broadest, flexible packaging includes, as it sounds, any non-rigid packaging format – from films and foils, through sacks, bags and pouches, to tubes and sachets. In the food category alone, the 1 trillion packaging units that were designed as flexible in 2019 is as much as glass, paper, metal and rigid plastics combined; it is also the leading material in cosmetics, personal care, household care and hot drinks, and for the entire market it is the single largest format with over 1.26 trillion units. If all markets are taken into account, it does become a closer contest between rigid plastics (1.18 trillion), while glass, paper and metal are each roughly 500 billion.
Any visit to a supermarket will show flexible packaging is dominant and here to stay, so why is it such a popular packaging format? Packaging engineers and production managers will tell you that it is versatile, lightweight, supportive and massively reduces transportation costs; it is the epitome of resource efficiency where packaging materials are concerned. From bags in boxes of cereal, to pouches for children’s food and drink, through to wine and spirits in bags or pouches that are being widely used for festivals and public events, its convenience and ability to be opened and reclosed repeatedly – plus its lightweight properties that allow for easy use on the go – all drive growth in the flexible packaging market.
New to the market
A quick glance at the most recent launches that have used flexible packaging in unique or game-changing ways would start with the biggest innovation of them all by Frizle Fresh Foods of Austria, which launched Frizle (fresh, ready-made pasta dough for making spaetzle noodles) in a pouch, with the innovation coming in providing ready-made pasta dough in a board-based pouch that doubles as a spaetzle noodle-making tool. The pack has won a German Packaging Award and a Gold Dupont Packaging Award (for technological advancement and enhanced user experience). It has a four-week refrigerated shelf life and was created by Martin Spiegel Kartonagenfabrik.
To appreciate the importance of the switch to flexible packaging for this product it is helpful to understand that, traditionally, spaetzle noodles are created using a spaetzle press or something like a metal colander or slotted spoon. The pasta dough is pushed through the tool to form short lengths that drop directly into boiling water to cook. However, spaetzle dough is sticky and washing the equipment after use is a time-consuming, unpleasant job. This pack provides a quick and convenient means of producing fresh noodles without any preparation, extra equipment or need for clean, and gives the consumer the feeling of making a home-cooked meal in minutes.
The packaging is strong enough for the pack to hold its shape and withstand moisture and steam from the boiling water, but flexible enough to allow rolling and squeezing to dispense the dough. Ultrasonic sealing means the pouch seals will not burst as the pack is squeezed by the consumer
Here, flexible packaging has improved the shelf life of the product, made it easier for the consumer to use and create a premium quality product at home. Plus, it has saved the brand money with a cost saving in material and waste.
One area that has consistently seen development in the use and function of flexible packaging is microwaveable goods. Consumers readily understand and identify the convenience of using this cooking form as it can give them meals in vastly accelerated times. As technology gets more intelligent, the fears that older consumers had about the quality, safety and capabilities of the microwave have all been overcome or addressed, and now there are myriad of products being microwaved that historically would not have been.
Take, for example, Houghton Hams’ Microwaveable Back Bacon, which has been released in two microwaveable packs, each containing two slices of bacon. While cooking times vary, depending on power, it would take 1 minute 20 seconds at 800W in an unopened pack. An absorbent pad inside the pack soaks up fat and moisture produced during cooking to give the bacon a crispier, dryer finish.
During microwaving, the top web of the pack inflates as pressure builds inside the pack until it reaches the point (after approximately 40 seconds) where the seal on one side of the pack bursts with an audible pop, creating a vent to release the pressure and allow steam to escape for safer consumer handling when opening.
This confluence of convenience, portion control, ease of preparation and clean up, and reduced material use and waste is again possible through the use of flexible packaging. The ability to use technical films to overcome heat or moisture requirements is another feature that makes flexible packaging so popular, as it is highly versatile; by changing the coating or perforation a wide variety of options are available.
Flexible in recycling
Waste reduction remains a key consideration across the packaging market, and flexible is doing its part to support bio packaging or compostable where possible, so that it can perform as an eco-friendly or sustainable packaging format.
Rhythm 108 is an earth-cautious, whole-foods-focused company that is keen to provide food that’s not only free from anything unnatural, but also delights consumers. This is an incredibly competitive market, and one that requires clear differentiators that consumers can identify as part of the brand heritage in order to seek out and purchase their product.
This has been achieved by the young brand with its use of home-compostable packaging for its Ooh-La-La Tea Biscuits. The paper laminate bag with NatureFlex eucalyptus-based bio-film, and a bio-polymer sealant, is supplied by Parkside. In the same market, a plastic-free, paper-based pack has recently been introduced by Troo Foods for its range of granola cereals.
The packaging is certified as home compostable by TUV Austria (formerly Vincotte). It carries the ‘OK compost Home’ symbol, signifying that it can be disposed of in a garden or home composter and will break down within 26 weeks at ambient temperatures. Barrier protection is provided by a layer of NatureFlex metalised cellulose film; the film's aluminum content is low enough not to interfere with its compostability, and it is claimed to provide an excellent barrier to moisture and oxygen, giving the product a shelf life of at least 1 year.
Supple and demand
For today’s busy consumer, convenience is king. Wise to this, Pip and Nut has tracked the trend for consumers to snack on the go, tempered with ensuring that they still eat healthily with its single-serve portions of nut butter, which is made with ‘absolutely no palm oil’ and designed for use on the go, and greatly benefits from its flexible packaging. Suggestions for consumption are not exhaustive but include ‘before a run, after the gym, in your lunchbox, or at your desk’, indicating that this is a healthy snack for all occasions that can be eaten on the move. Small and flat sachets are easy to carry, and offer clean dispensing for a sticky product. The sachet has a narrow pour aperture that allows the consumer to dispense the peanut butter directly into the mouth, which is convenient and hygienic while on the move. The sachets contain a measured dose of peanut butter and are sold individually, and nearly all of the product can be squeezed out the sachet, minimising residual product wastage.
One of the latest flexible packaging formats, which has already won an award for its convenience and reusability, has been launched by Molson Coors. Managing to replace the traditional carry carton for beer, the bag can hold up to 5lb of ice and can be used repeatedly without issue. Intelligently, the bag fits into the same space as a typical 12 pack carton would, and holds its shape on shelf and through distribution.
Bruce Smith, senior director of global packaging at Molson Coors, said that as the prototype found on shelves in trial run “was designed to be bulletproof so that there would be no failures in the field, and we could guarantee solid data on consumer interest in the pack”, it was considerably more expensive than folding carton – by about 500%. However, as it has proved so popular, Molson can now start to optimise the packaging, which includes making it 100% recyclable, with the enhanced version relaunching 2020.