The Upward Trajectory of Sustainable Films
How CPGs Can Stay Ahead
By Bob Burkhardt, product manager for cartoning and robotics at the R.A. Jones Company
It goes without saying, sustainability is one of the biggest topics dominating the packaging industry. Encouraged by consumers’ consistent increased interest in environmental impact and paired with significant buying power, food brands are now facing the challenge of adapting production practices to meet these shifting preferences.
Research demonstrates that consumer interest in sustainable packaging has continuously grown in the past few years. According to a recent report by PDI Technologies, 64% of people were willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products in 2021, which increased 4 points to 68% in 2023. These trends become more prevalent amongst younger generations, with 91% of 18–26-year-olds wanting to buy from sustainable companies. Through this data, it is evident that many Americans will make a conscious decision to choose an eco-friendly product regardless of a premium price.
This research also helps consumer-packaged goods (CPGs) companies build a roadmap and plan long-term. With younger consumers demonstrating significant interest in environmentally friendly packaging, it is clear that this purchasing movement will continue to trend upward in the years to come. Therefore, it is essential for CPGs to invest in innovative equipment and packaging solutions that can accommodate sustainable materials to meet these demands head on.
In the past few years, the general public’s perception surrounding plastic has shifted; shoppers are looking to minimize their own impact on the environment as well as reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. This sentiment has expanded beyond public thought, with government agencies identifying plastic packaging as unnecessary waste.
In fact, the European Union has proposed new rules on single-use packaging in efforts to prevent waste and make all packaging recyclable by 2030. These contemporary regulations work to restrict unnecessary packaging and promote reusable solutions while emphasizing the power of a circular economy. With this in mind, any CPG companies servicing the European market will need to ensure they are compliant with these upcoming regulations.
One way for companies to transition away from single-use materials is through the use of sustainable, flexible films on high-speed form/fill/seal pouching machines, which can package a variety of products including soup bases, spices, instant breakfast foods, drink mixes, nutraceuticals and snacks.
Legacy vs. innovative
Sustainable, flexible films offer great alternatives to single-use materials; however, the challenge with readily recyclable material is that it does not have a one-to-one replacement. In fact, flexible packaging in particular presents a more complicated path to sustainability, as ecofriendly alternatives cannot always run properly on high-speed pouch form, fill and seal equipment.
Any material on high-speed flexible packaging lines must be able to accommodate the application of high heat to allow the materials to bond together and create a solid, gap-free, durable close. Typically, traditional packaging film structures are constructed with multi-layer materials to offer strong barrier qualities as well as to ensure protection from the heat. Unfortunately, due to the multiple layers and combination of materials, these features often make the final package harder to recycle and reuse.
To address these concerns, new mono-material film structures are being developed to provide CPGs with high-quality, green solutions that can achieve the same performance levels as legacy packaging materials.
The problem? The lack of layers which makes the mono-materials so popular, also becomes their biggest hurdle, as the films are too delicate to handle the stresses required to process the material on a machine. These new materials offer a smaller heat tolerance range and greater elasticity so when exposed to applied heat and pressure, the sustainable films can be prone to stretching, shrinking or distortion on the production line.
When this distortion occurs, the manufacturer not only loses film packaging material, but it can also potentially damage the product it is designed to protect. This results in downtime as the machines must be paused or shut down while the damaged product is removed and the production line reset. The impact of this maintenance time not only wastes resources but hampers output and overall efficiency. Without newer and more sophisticated technologies to control and monitor the heat and web tension, the sustainable webs can become easily unusable.
The best way for CPGs to integrate environmentally friendly packaging solutions is to identify an original equipment manufacturer (OEMs) whose machine technology can handle these delicate, sustainable materials with precision and that does not compromise on speed and production performance.
Knowing that meeting these challenges requires extensive retooling and revolutionizing, innovation experts at some OEMs are deep into the R&D stages, uncovering the solutions that will help CPGs finally hit their stride in the years to come.
For example, our business has invested significantly in developing new heat-sealing technology, which manages the sealing process to avoid damaging the sustainable packaging films. Armed with positive results from running sustainable films on the equipment, we are offering a new service for material suppliers to test their sustainable films on our machinery.
Material suppliers will be able to receive a detailed scientific report highlighting the film’s capabilities, such as its seal bar temperature, pressure roller force, and distortion temperature and time. With this information, material suppliers can ensure the proper temperature and tension to run their web on high-speed pouching equipment before selling it to CPG companies.
Working closely with the right partners will allow brands to share their individual flexible packaging product needs with an OEM and ensure that they move to a more sustainable material option. As consumers and government agencies continue to step up efforts to one day make the transition to 100 percent sustainable packaging a reality, consumer brands must be ready to meet these demands.
About the Author
Bob Burkhardt is a product manager for cartoning and robotics at the R.A Jones Company. With over 30 years of experience in the consumer good industry working with customers such as General Mills, Anheuser-Busch, Miller Brewing, P&G, Kraft-Heinz, and Kelloggs as a mechanical engineer, applications engineer, and project leader. For more information about R.A Jones’ new flexible film trial offering for material suppliers on its Pouch King machinery, or to learn more about its high-speed pouching equipment, please visit rajones.com.