Flexible packaging continues to overtake other forms of packaging as both consumers and brand owners often prefer it.

Food packaging is designed to preserve and store contents while keeping products fresher, longer. Flexible packaging does even more, as it is great at achieving packaging goals and more eco-friendly than other forms of packaging because it takes less energy to produce — lowering CO2 emissions and their effect on the environment. Flexible packaging is also less expensive to produce than alternative packaging materials.

The major drawback of flexible packaging is that it is considered difficult to recycle. Despite the low cost of flexible packaging, some manufacturers are resisting switching over as their current packaging machinery is in place and expensive to replace.

What is driving the popularity of flexible packaging?

Every week, new products are transitioned to flexible packaging, so what is behind this growing trend?

The biggest driving force is consumer and retail demand. Consumers want the plastic pouches and bags because they like the way the flexible packaging looks, and the packaging is easy to open, transports well, takes up less storage space. Retailers also like the appearance of flexible packaging, and the fact that it takes up less shelf space allowing stores be more creative with their merchandise displays.

Thanks to an increase in natural gas production, the making of polyethylene (PE) is now cheap in the United States. Low-density PE is the primary raw material used in manufacturing flexible packaging, lowering production costs by up to 40 percent compared to rigid plastic packaging. Since PE is strong and lightweight, transportation costs are also lower.

PE is also a less wasteful material than other plastics used in rigid plastic packaging. This creates a business case for using PE especially with the criticism of environmentalists concerning plastic being difficult to recycle. For example, by using an additive in PE, it biodegrades in only 18 months in places where there is a high count of microbes such as a landfill. When completely broken down, all that is left is carbon and water.

Another advantage is that flexible packaging usually has a barrier material (foil) that doesn't allow damaging UV rays from the sun reach the package contents. This type of packaging also excels at protecting packaged materials from dampness, contamination, grease and oxygen that might oxidize the material in the packaging.

By the numbers

  • In 2014, the flexible packaging industry in the United States had $31.1 billion in sales.
  • Flexible packaging has around 19 to 20 percent of the U.S. packaging market, the second-largest packaging segment in a $164 billion industry.
  • On average, flexible packaging employers have around 200 employees, and this market segment has about 79,000 employees total.

60 percent of the shipping done by third-party logistics companies is food, both retail and commercial — making a large market for flexible packaging. The chart below shows the breakdown of 3PL sales by percentage:

  • 60 — food (retail and commercial)
  • 12 — retail (nonfood)
  • 10 — consumer goods
  • 9 — pharmaceutical and medical
  • 6 — industrial applications
  • 3 — institutional (nonfood)

Innovations in flexible packaging

Pouches for drinks were among the first adaptations of flexible packaging. When first introduced, a separate straw was needed to open the pouch and drink its contents.

A new innovation for pouches is the development of "spouted" drink packaging. This ends the need for a straw to open and sip a drink through replacement of the "punch hole" with a spout. Additionally, the spouts come with a tamper evidence system that lets consumers know if the packaging has been opened.

Another innovation in PE pouch design is a certain type of valve that makes the drink, once opened, spill-proof.

Pouches have been developed for use in autoclaves where medical and surgical supplies are sterilized. These are single-use packages that after sterilization become the equipment's sterile packaging. Normal autoclave sterilization needs two packages, one for sterilizing and one for storage. Using flexible packaging improves efficiency, lowers cost and has less waste of materials.

Those brands resisting the switch will ultimately do so as consumers and retailers continue to favor it.