Flexible packaging is a hit across all markets and regions, and according to Canadean research, it will soon take over more than half of food packaging worldwide. As Canadean reports: "Flexible packaging is set to expand its share in the food packaging market even further, reaching 53.1% in the next three years."
The star of flexible formats is the bag/sachet, representing 65.8% of all flexible food packs in 2014, but pouches are tipped to start the next growth spurt. Pouches offer a firm, upright pack that's advantageous for displays with minimal storage requirements, and microwavable pouches are on the verge of replacing tinned ready-meal products. Canadean analyst Kirsty Nolan explains that the success is due to bags meeting the consumer call for convenience: "The outer plastic layers of microwavable pouches are designed to cool quickly while keeping contents hot, allowing consumers to eat straight from the microwave."
But why is the demand for flexible packaging growing so consistently? One reason is that it meets so many needs across all demographics and lifestyles - large ageing populations need lighter packs with easy openings, smaller households want re-sealable multi-packs, and younger people want disposable, single-use products. Another driver is plastic's potential for innovation, as flexibles has the highest number of new formats and applications across packaging materials, as it lends itself to versatility.
Conveniently versatile: preference for plastics
Modern lifestyles demand products that emphasise convenience, which is pushing the preference for plastics. Gemma Hill lead packing analyst at Pack-Track says that, "Flexible packaging formats have long been recognised as offering cost savings to brand owners in terms of materials, energy and transportation, but they are no longer just regarded as a lower-cost option...the ability to cook the product safely in the pack, and even to use the pack as an eating vessel or serving dish greatly enhances potential for on-the-go and out-of-home consumption."
Not only are manufacturers benefitting from lower production costs, but consumers are increasingly choosing products that allow for convenience and minimal fuss. For instance, UK company Lizi's Granola offers portion-sized cereal packs in flexible plastic. Tear off the top, add a splash of water and you have a self-contained bowl of granola with lactose-free milk and a disposable spoon. Not only does the stand-up gusset pack look good on the shelf, but it can be used when travelling, for feeding children on-the-go, or simply saving on the washing up.
Various brands have opted for the container-come-utensil approach for their products, including other cereals, soups, yogurts and even Pedia Care's Fever Reducer children's medicine - single doses of pain reliever that can be kept in your bag, first aid box, or anywhere really, with no spoon needed.
Another contributor to the success of flexibles is that versatility can be further increased by the choice of closure used. "Enhancing consumer convenience with the addition of easy-opening and reclose features is becoming almost commonplace and many brand owners are now looking to add further value in the form of pack features that offer improved pack handling and product dispensing," says Hill. Considering this, French company Vahiné has capitulated on the trend of home baking with its new range of dessert products. Vahiné's Cupcake Cream varieties are pre-made and have an integrated icing nozzle; they're ideal for people to experiment with cupcake decoration without buying all of the kitchen equipment, or if you just don't want to make the cream themselves.
Flexible packaging with a specialised closure has proven popular across a diverse range of market sectors. A good example of this is Cosfarm's sun tan lotion, which comes in a flexible foil pack with a plastic screw top - not only is this far lighter than a bottle, but it's easier to store and carry around, without the mess of open and pour closures.
Innovation for Schur: a bag filling concept
"Developments in barrier materials have resulted in improved shelf life and the ability to package a much wider range of foods, while advances in print technology allowing matte, gloss and textured surface finishes, complex metallising, and very precise embossed detail, mean that flexible formats can deliver a premium presentation and really stand out on the retail shelf to catch the shopper's eye," explains Hill, and nowhere demonstrates this more emphatically than packaging producer Schur Star Systems.
Schur has redefined what it means to be flexible with a bag filling concept it claims can accommodate almost any size and shape of product. Demand for packaging diversity is growing as manufacturers compete for a point of difference on the shelf, while also managing costs and ensuring loyalty through consumer connection. Schur aims to meet these needs through continual innovation.
'The in-house bag converting is made on our converting machines, developed and manufactured by Schur Technology, giving us the possibility to develop new bag shapes or bag functionalities on a day to day business, skipping the protracted process of explaining our customers' needs to third-party machine manufacturers,' the company says. Flexibility is in the bag, with the company offering polyethylene, polypropylene and laminates in a range of barrier strengths and in many colours. 'The bags are available in many shapes with all kinds of features, like bottom gusset and header bags with Euro slot. We also make segment bags, peelable bags, stand-up bags, piping bags, recloseable bags and customised bags.'
The company's latest pack is its Schur Jar: an eye-catching flexible pack that looks like a jar but has the light-weight convenience of a packet, which it says will 'revolutionise' the industry. 'The premium printing techniques of Schur Star Systems give this bag a three-dimensional shelf appearance,' says Schur. 'The Schur Jar bag can be made to meet all possible functionalities needed, including all types of barrier capacities.'
This follows hot on the heels of the Schur Star Squeeze 'n' Mix pack, which has two compartments for meat and a marinade sauce separated by a frangible seal. Just squeeze the pack to break the seal and voila. The company says this approach not only reassures customers through visibility of the quality of ingredients, but extends the shelf-life and avoids the messy part of food preparation process. "Innovation and creativity define our company," says Daniel Pastewka, Schur head of marketing and internal sales in Germany. "We produce the packaging of today, but we already develop packagings of the future."
Making plastic green: eco-friendly options
The greater the uptake of flexible plastics, the more importance is being placed on developing eco-friendly options that won't damage the environment. Not only is business sustainability a factor, but public opinion and competition for raw materials are forcing the industry to be more creative to save face, as well as money.
Many businesses are investing in greener packaging, including Schur, which won both the Sial 2014 Selection award and the 2014 Macropack award for using 80% less material while doubling the transport pallet volumes. Schur said that, 'This new packaging offers both creative marketing opportunities and strong environmental benefits at the same time.'
Another green solution is switching from closures produced using fossil fuels to high-density polyethylene (HDPE) made from sugar-cane, which is lighter, cheaper and better for the environment. Tetra Pak starting using this for its bio-caps in 2014, bringing its paperboard 1L Tetra Rex cartons up to 84% recyclable material.
While biodegradable packaging materials were previously considered a whim of the public, the benefits of light-weighting, lower distribution costs and reduced waste are being felt across the industry, and leaner, greener flexibles are earning their place as the packaging material of the future.