Consumer preferences are changing all over the world. The portion sizes of products are also changing (usually getting smaller, individual sized). The consumer preference towards how the product is stored and consumed is also changing. A lot of food is now consumed while the consumer is mobile, without sitting on a table. There is a growing focus on providing the convenience of use to such consumers. Flexible packaging materials are designed to meet these needs. Products such as reseal-able pouches and twist off packaging for candies (e.g. Halls), where a single unit can be unwrapped without affecting other units are great examples how only a small portion of the product is consumed while keeping the remaining product sealed and fresh for next time.
Flexible packaging is beneficial for the supply chain as well. It consumes less space and is easy to store and transport. Due to such advantages, it is rapidly gaining market share over other packaging options. Its use is growing at such rapid rate that the market for flexible packaging is estimated to be about $350 Billion by 2018. Let’s take a look at some reasons why it is such a rage in Industry.
- Lightweight: A flexible package is usually made of thin sheet of plastic polymer. This means it weighs a lot less than usual packaging containers. A classic example for weight comparison is packaged water PET bottle. Over the years the bottle has got thinner and thinner to a point where it can no longer be reduced in thickness. However flexible polymer sheets are even thinner and stronger than current PET bottles. The next logical step for bottled water would be to become a flexible pouch of water. This is already a reality in many parts of the world. Another example is cling film packaging. Fresh food (such as cucumber, broccoli and other vegetables are wrapped in cling film without adding any weight or extra volume. It also keeps the product visible to the customer at all times. A lot of processed food such as cheese is regularly wrapped in flexible packaging so that its appeal to the eye is capitalized. Even for oversized bulk packaging bags (The Flexible Intermediate Bulk containers), flexible material is used for storing and transporting material in large volumes. It is lighter than drums and tanks and easy to transport and manage and provides similar volume and strength.
- Easy printing/branding: Packaging is used as a brand’s marketing canvas. It’s a great platform to catch customer eyeballs and no marketer will miss this opportunity. However with rigidly structured container printing becomes a challenge. The shape, irregular size of the container can pose a challenge to print on the surface of the container, which affects the speed and quality of prints. Many times marketers use external labels in such situations. The labels are printed separately and then affixed to the container (tins and trays) after the material is packed and is ready for shipping. This causes logistical problems. The printing is done by a separate vendor, which requires coordination for the exact requirement, changes in design, the volume of production and mistakes are usually caught after the delivery of label. Flexible material removes this problem to an extent. It can be printed onsite, which means the printing and production run can be customized, designs can be changed quickly and mistakes can be caught early.
- Barrier Properties: Many products such as juices, wines, milk and other foods need to be packaged in an oxygen free environment. Flexible polymers are easier to bond with appropriate barrier compound while retaining light weight and flexibility. Other packaging materials such as cans, drums, paper boxes etc need a thicker and separate layer of barrier material (such as aluminum) which increases the costs. Tetra pack packaging is a case in point here. It provides great protection to its contents but the packaging itself is rigid and expensive. Aluminum has been used as a flexible barrier for a long time. However, its use in the recent stand-up packaging makes it vulnerable to cracks and pores which can let air, water pass through. Newer products such as styrene-acrylonitrile address this problem. They are tough even in thin layers and can stay flexible when bonded with polymers.
- Variation in style and dispensing: Packages made from flexible plastic films can be made in virtually any shape. They can be made in pouches, bags, boxes, zip-lock style bags, narrow neck, easy grip pouch, screw top cap pouch or with a laser-score-tear feature or a simple wrap around packaging (cling film). It can be molded into any bag of any shape as well. This flexibility makes the packaging more creative and practical. Imagine a flat water container that fits in a handbag, like a book. It’s already being sold. Along with same, the dispensing of product through packaging can also be done in many ways. For example, the liquid soap packaging fits right in the dispensing machine which connects the valve of the dispenser to the packaging. The right amount of soap is dispensed without making any mess. Small screw-on tops or pierce through straws are equally well suited for flexible pouches.
- Varied sizes: As they are strong and flexible, flexible material can be used to pack very small quantities right up to large bulk material for industrial consumption. The large industrial bags or Flexible Industrial bulk containers (FIBC) are as common as large gunny bags made of the same material and are used to pack air tight materials such as cement.
Flexible packaging is finding applications in other nonfood industries as well. It is especially well suited for packing clothing material so that it can be rolled to save space and still stay protected from dirt and other environmental elements. In fact, they are especially suitable in the healthcare sector where even a slight tear renders the medicine unusable. Many medicines such as eye drops and injectable medicines are already available in single dose flexible packaging. All you need is a little creativity and you can start reaping the benefits of flexible packaging as well.