Flexible packagers navigate design and sustainability challenges  

With a plethora of materials and packaging types at their disposal, designers are striving to meet the ever-growing market expectations. By Laura Syrett.

Flexible packaging is a crucial component in diverse sectors like food, beverage, personal care, and pharmaceuticals. Credit: Irina Shats via Shutterstock

Demands on flexible packaging designers to help products stand out on shelves while ensuring maximum protection for products and sustainable environmental credentials are a tough mix of requirements for packaging makers – but they are succeeding in delivering these goals.  

There are many choices for innovators in the sector.  

Flexible packaging, whose shape can readily be changed when filled, or during use, can be produced from a range of materials including paper, plastic, film, aluminium foil, or any combination of these substrates, protected by resins and decorated by inks.  

And packaging types include bags, pouches, liners, wraps, rollstock, and other flexible products.  

Flexible packaging is a popular packaging solution because it offers versatile, convenient protection for a range of consumer goods, particularly for food, health and hygiene and e-commerce packaging.  

According to Pune, India-based market research firm Spherical Insights, the market size of the global flexible packaging industry is projected to grow from USD255.8 billion in 2022 to USD397.39 billion by 2032 at a compound annual growth rate of 4.5%.  

Data collated by the Annapolis, Maryland, US-based Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) indicates that flexible packaging is currently the number one packaging solution choice worldwide, noted Alison Keane, FPA CEO and president.  

A key reason is that flexible packaging can be readily shaped to fit a product with the least amount of material, while maintaining superior barrier protection.  

Designing for success: a focus on performance and value 

FPA analysis suggests that performance is the most important characteristic consumer product companies look for when choosing flexible packaging solutions, ensuring a product reaches the consumer undamaged.  

“Ultimately it is the customer that specifies the package based on the requirements for the product’s protection,” Keane told Packaging Gateway.  

According to Derek Peacock, design centre director for Espoo, Finland-headquartered food packaging specialist Huhtamäki, flexible packaging designs are agreed in consultation with clients about what they want to achieve.  

“We define and measure the target with our clients,” he said, adding that at the testing stage, Huhtamäki, “reports the findings” to its clients so that it can make continuous improvements to achieve the optimum result.     

These design requirements are then passed on to packaging manufacturers, or ‘converters,’ who turn raw materials into packaging solutions.  

Thomas Dunn, managing director of Flexpackology LLC, a packaging consultancy based in Atlanta, Georgia, US, stressed that companies continue to finely tune the rotogravure printing, flexographic printing, adhesive lamination, extrusion lamination/coating; and finishing/slitting delivering quality flexible packaging.  

In this way, successful packaging units minimise wasted time and materials, reducing cost and enhance sustainability: “That value [of flexible packaging] is relative to the benefits of the packaging to the product.  

Those benefits are generally appearance (…) barrier [and] containment [of the product],” he said.  

“Adding features to packaging usually adds cost, and an expectation of an increased price. If those features can add benefits to the products, the packaging is more valuable and worth a cost increase.  

If not, the packaging is actually less valuable,” Dunn explained on a Flexpackology blog.  

Sustainability in focus: adapting to new regulations and consumer demand 

Keane notes that sustainability features are increasingly being incorporated into flexible packaging by converters, driven by new legislation, such as the UK’s extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations, which since coming into force on 1 January 2023 seek to place the full net cost of packaging at the end of its life onto packaging producers, as opposed to local authorities who handle waste collection.  

This is pushing sustainability down from converters to packaging users, by putting more sustainable products on the market, even if, as Keane said, the added costs can deter procurement.  

In its State of the Flexible Packaging Industry Report for 2023, the FPA asked converters what types of emerging sustainable packaging they were manufacturing and 88% stated they were producing recycle-ready packages.  

Of those surveyed, 80% stated they were making all mono-material packaging, which is easier to recycle than multi-material packaging; 72% stated post-consumer recycled (PCR) packaging; 56% stated paper flexible packaging; 55% said compostable structures; 43% said bio-based structures; and 27% stated reuse/refill system packaging.  

Keane said that despite the potentially increased cost, consumer goods companies are accepting sustainable solutions, provided performance is not compromised.  

And that is something packaging companies cannot dodge – being tested in the transit of goods and their shelf life. ePac, an Austin, Texas, US-headquartered flexible packaging specialist, stressed in an in-house blog that as well as appealing to consumers visually, flexible packaging can also gain kudos by helping extend food products’ shelf lives.  

Packagers, as a result, continue to explore the use of materials such as high-barrier films, that help preserve flavours, aromas and freshness, preventing light, oxygen and water penetration.  

This kind of innovation is reflected in a now ubiquitous feature of flexible packaging, particularly pouches - reseal technology, boosting freshness once the package has been opened.  

Closing the loop: oxygen absorbers and full lifecycle sustainability 

Oxygen absorbers are now also routinely added to flexible packages to prevent the growth of fungi and microorganisms, by keeping oxygen levels within packages close to zero.  

Such product sustainability really hits home with environmentally conscious consumers when combined with packaging end-of-life sustainability.  

“The key is closing the full lifecycle with infrastructure that supports collection, sortation, and recycling or composting of flexible packaging,” said Keane, noting that this stage of the flexible packaging lifecycle relies heavily on decisions packaging users made at the design phase.  

“If product protection can be satisfied with a mono-material structure that is ready for recycling or composting once used, that is a key consideration,” she said.  

“With the new laws coming in the next several years, the FPA believes that the two parallel tracks – innovative sustainable packaging design and funding for investment in modernising (…) recycling and composting infrastructure – will come together for full circularity for flexible packaging,” added Keane.