New Development in Flexible Plastic Packaging
Prateeksha Kaul
Research Analyst, Visionary Science Practice,
Frost & Sullivan

Most forms of traditional plastics have now become synonymous to environment hazards. With this context, flexible plastic has been emerging as an eco-friendlier substitute. In this article, the author narrates the changing trend of plastic usage across the industry and the innovative initiatives that various key players have been bringing in towards sustainability maintenance.

Plastics have been a part of the packaging industry for a long time. Their features-lightweight, low cost, durability, ease of handling, and intrinsic properties viz. chemical and moisture resistance-make them the go-to packaging material in most cases. Rising consumption, large-scale eCommerce driven production, warehousing, and transportation have increased the demand for packaging that eases the process of storing and transporting. Thus, flexible plastic has emerged as a preference for such industries.

The global flexible plastic packaging market was valued at USD 146.90 billion in 2018 and is expected to generate revenue of USD 172.29 million by 2023. Amongst regions, Asia-Pacific is expected to witness the highest growth rate (3.6 percent from 2018 to 2023) owing to the increasing number of dualincome households.

North America is expected to witness a gradual shift from rigid to flexible plastic owing to its lightweight, low cost, durability, and easy-to-handle features. EU has set 2030 targets for recycling rates (55 percent of plastic ), which is expected to impact the market in the region. In the Asia-Pacific region, factors including expanding eCommerce industry, rapid urbanization, and increasing women workforce population are expected to contribute to greater demand for durable/protective packaging in the region.

Market Trends-Recyclability & Sustainability IMPACT
Flexible plastic has emerged as a better alternative packaging material. In comparison to rigid plastics, flexible plastics use 88 percent less fossil fuel and reduce solid waste by 66 percent, thus proving to be a more sustainable option.

However, the end-of-life stage of the plastic, i.e., recycling, remains a challenge. As a result, it ends up in landfills and adds to environmental concerns. According to the United Nations' Environment Programme, more than 300 million tons of plastic is being produced every year, but only 9 percent of the cumulative waste has been recycled to date.

Recycling flexible plastic has always remained a challenge owing to a couple of factors. The multi-polymer products and chemicals added to polymers are the ones that complicate the entire recycling process as it becomes difficult to separate the layers. The lack of proper infrastructure and funding in certain regions such as APAC and Latin America also impacts the recycling process.

In addition, declining oil prices have made it cheaper to make virgin plastic, thus making investors reluctant to commit to the recycled plastic usage. Increasing regulations have pressurized the manufacturers to move towards circular economy and to develop recyclable and sustainable solutions.

In the United States, in 2018 there are around 52 approved bills compared to 30 in 2015, with a primary focus on banning single-use plastics, replacing plastics, and increasing recycling targets. The US government is aiming to approve 90 plus similar pending bills over the next 3 years. Increasing pressure from the public, regulators, and the industry has encouraged companies to develop more sustainable packaging solutions.

Consequently, top retailers and FMCG manufacturers (such as PepsiCo, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Nestle, etc) and packaging manufacturers have introduced sustainability declarations and commitments. Some of these include:
  • Reduction in the weight of packaging material, ranging from 20 percent to 33 percent
  • Increased recyclability and reusability of packaging material - aiming at 100 percent
  • Increased use of recycled plastic in packaging material, ranging from 9 percent to 100 percent
Product Innovation to Promote Circular Economy
Flexible plastic packaging is primarily used in food & beverage applications and most of the market participants are increasing their focus on developing recyclable polymers for the segment. In addition, participants have focused on reducing the weight of material used, increasing the recycled content used, and manufacturing recyclable flexible plastic packaging solutions. Below are the market participants who have been successful in developing recycle-friendly and sustainable flexible packaging solutions.

In February 2018, Mondi developed BarrierPack Recyclable, a fully recyclable plastic laminate for pre-made pouches. Besides being sustainable, the product is highly functional, consumer convenient, and suitable for a wide range of applications such as dry food, pet care, and personal care.

In 2019, Huhtamaki launched the Blueloop packaging platform aimed at making flexible plastic packaging circular. The Blueloop product range consists of recyclable solutions with mono-material structures such as PE, PP, and paper.

In 2018, Amcor developed a polyolefinbased film as an alternative to PET. The new film delivers excellent performance for barrier and heat processing without compromising on the packaging function and product shelf-life; and is suitable for existing polyolefin recycling streams. Amcor is also working to eliminate aluminium and polyester-based pouches with a recyclable PP based design for pet food. The company also expects to convert all flexible pouch production to this new 100 percent recycling-ready process by as early as 2021.

In October 2018, Parkside Flexibles Ltd launched a fully recyclable single polymer laminate (recoflex-PE) to support the concept of circular economy. Although the recoflex-PE is made from 100 percent PE, the laminate has excellent barrier, mechanical strength, and sealing properties and thus is well suited for nuts and snacks, most cheeses, coffee, protein powders, and nutrition packaging.

Polyplex Corporation Ltd & TPL
(Transparent Paper Ltd):

In 2019, Polyplex and TPL launched BOPP films containing 70 percent postconsumer recycled content. The films were developed by using post -consumer PET bottles which are depolymerized to monomers. These monomers are further polymerized to PET resins which then can be easily extruded to BIOPET films.

BBC Cellpack Packaging
In April 2019, the company introduced CELLPouch, flexible stand-up pouches with 100 percent recyclability. CELLPouch pouches are made of special films and are noted for their barrier properties and a child-resistant closure system, which makes them ideal for packaging hot content, baby food, and fruit purée.

Bioplastics: Alternative to Conventional Plastics
With increasing awareness among consumers about the long-term effects of plastics, the demand for innovative sustainable alternatives has surged considerably.

Major brand owners are switching to bio-based plastics including Bio-PET, Bio-PP, polylactide (PLA), and polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB). With rising demand, production capacities are increasing, and this will lead to reasonable prices. As a result, the shift towards bioplastics is expected to increase. For instance, PepsiCo switched to bio-based flexible packaging developed by Danimer Scientific, manufacturer of biodegradable plastic materials.

Biodegradable plastics such as Bio PP and Polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH/PVA) are potential candidates as watersoluble packaging materials are used in applications such as water bottles. Other examples such as Polybutylene succinate(PBS) make for an ideal candidate to make safe packaging materials for food. Bio PET can be used to replace a wide range of traditional PE and PET materials across food and FMCG packaging.

Bioplastic is revolutionizing the packaging industry with lower energy consumption and carbon dioxide generation; however, certain challenges such as high cost and specialization required for recycling are expected to impact the growth.

Influence of Digitization
Manufacturers of packaging materials and brand owners of food and cosmetic products are accepting digitization as a critical strategy in increasing the value of their products. Integrating digital technology into packaging (smart packaging) solutions as compared to traditional packaging offers more benefits to consumers and producers. It creates a broad range of growth opportunities and assists in :
  • Value-chain tracking or supply-chain traceability to ensure safe delivery and authenticity of products to the consumers.
  • Reduces the chance of counterfeit drugs. According to the World Health Organization, around 1 million lose their lives globally due to fake medicines. To counter this issue, smart packaging in the form of holograms or micro-text is adopted by manufacturers.
  • Implementation of IIoT in transportation & logistics for hasslefree supply chain.
  • Increasing customer engagement by providing complete product information through multiple technologies including QR codes, RFID, and NFC.
Shelf-life sensing, temperature indicators, and RFID are technological methods used on packaging. Further, nano-packaging that offers modified atmosphere packaging systems is also gaining importance.

Major market participants who develop digitized solutions for the packaging converters include PragmatIC, Amcor MaXQ, EVRYTHNG, Smartglyph, Thinfilm, Water.IO, and Timestrip.

Digitized Innovations
  • PragmatIC launched low-cost radio-frequency identification(RFID) integrated circuits for item identification and tracking, hierarchical inventory management, and supply chain assurance. This RFID circuit can be used for applications including food and beverages, personal and home care, pharmaceutical, and healthcare.
  • Amcor is in partnership with Kezzler launched MaXQ, NFC technologybased digital packaging system that is designed to increase consumer engagement for products including functional beverages, protein shakes, nutritional drinks, soda cans, and soft beverages. With a single scan, the technology helps the consumer to get complete product information, or even have a live conversation with the brand and verify shelf-life.
  • NFC OpenSense tags (thin flexible labels) by Thinfilm allow the user to detect the product’s sealed and opened states using an NFC-enabled smartphone.
  • In 2018, EVRYTHNG launched an application called Reciclaya at Carrefour supermarkets in Spain. This application allows the consumer to know about the recycling process of a product by scanning the barcode. The app lets the consumer keep track of the products bought, know about the recycling scheme, and also get information on sorting the waste. The app also includes a virtual reward system where the customer gets a reward point every time they use the app for recycling.
The Road Ahead
With an increased emphasis on circular economy, packaging companies have been keen on engaging with participants across the value chain to ensure that the flexible plastic packaging options available in the market to have a high degree of recyclability and sustainability. Companies are aiming at increasing recycled content in packaging. However, on the digitization front , the industry is still in the naive stages but the application of smart packaging is expected to increase in the near future owing to increased consumer awareness about product safety.