Flexible Pouch Packaging: Disrupting the Status Quo

By Dennis Calamusa, President and CEO at ALLIEDFLEX Technologies, Inc

We hear a lot of negative press regarding “plastic packaging” and its reportedly adverse environmentally impact. There is a constant buzz in the press and by advocacy groups as to how plastic packaging is destroying the planet. Unfortunately, we do not hear enough about the massive benefits of flexible packaging when compared to the alternatives which have been embraced over many decades which have potentially caused much greater harm, but have been ignored and continue to be overlooked as a concern.

It is not unusual to be reluctant to change from what was to be considered standard to something new and different. There is always pushback against change and this pushback comes from a variety of directions including from what has been the traditional norm. In the case of packaging, it also comes from the legacy packaging industries and the challenges of changing the massive existing infrastructure that have been installed and in operation over many decades.

Despite the reluctance, change in packaging is happening. We can see it happening all around us. Against all odds packaging change is occurring because it just makes sense. The shift to Flexible Pouch Packaging is inevitable, well underway and unstoppable.

Companies are changing to flexible pouch packaging globally since they are exploring more cost-effective alternatives. All packaging materials and types are increasing in cost. Cost goes well beyond the cost of the package. It also reflects in the cost of infrastructure that supports them.

The cost of logistics including transportation, fuel surcharges and material handling is now on the table and is having a huge impact on the total cost of packaging. This ripple effect is ultimately reflected in the costs of the consumer goods we purchase. This is particularly prevalent when it comes to rigid packaging (3 dimensional) formats including bottles, cans, jars and composite containers.

These traditional rigid packaging formats represent a huge percentage of total packaging usage and packaging waste worldwide.

Rigid packaging, particularly the glass and metal can industry are both dominate suppliers established over many decades. As a result, the rigid packaging industry is not so willing to dissolve into the pages of packaging history. They focus on the fact that their packaging is recyclable infinitely and key to supporting a circular economy.

Glass packaging is recycled at a rate of approximately 31 percent, steel cans are at a rate of approximately 70 percent and paperboard packaging is approximately 65 percent. Flexible Packaging recycle rate is approximately 8 percent however flexible packaging represents less than 1 percent of all packaging waste. We expect flexible packaging recycling to increase as infrastructure and mono material development expands.

Unfortunately, the energy to produce these legacy packaging formats is great in comparison to a flexible packaging alternative. And the fact that we would continue to promote a “circle of re-use” and continue to consume mass energy inefficiently over and over again cannot be a long-term practical or economically feasible strategy going forward.

True sustainability needs to take all elements into consideration, not just end of life. Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) clearly illustrates the science that assesses the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of the life-cycle. It is reported that plastic packaging is actually greener than glass and steel packaging when evaluated by Life-Cycle Assessment compared to the alternatives when comparing raw material extraction, manufacturing / processing and transportation.

The energy that is consumed in the manufacturing process of rigid containers is not just limited to the production of these containers, but continues on into the transportation and distribution cycle of these packages from Point A (Manufacture) to Point B (Delivery & Beyond). We have seen well documented examples of 20+ truckloads of rigid packaging compared to an equivalent single truckload of flexible packaging.

Consider this scenario extrapolated globally “day in and day” out all over the world to the tune of millions and millions of truck and container loads. Now think about the negative impact of that on carbon CO2 emissions.

If you or any one you know who are truly concerned with the impact of global warming this fact should be sending shock waves though those advocates focused on demonizing flexible plastic packaging and promoting glass and metal packaging just because they are recyclable.

This simple transportation scenario alone does not seem to be enough of a reason to change from rigid to flexible packaging as it does not get the attention that it deserves from either the environmentalist or the packager since it is just considered a side effect of the massive infrastructure that they have learned to accept as “normal”.

During the pandemic we experienced firsthand the importance of safe secure product protection and the trust that is provided by all packaging. All packaging continues to serve its role which cannot be under estimated as critical or importance.

A new age of packaging is upon us where packaging is lighter, more efficient utilizing less energy to produce and transport and recycle. When it is disposed takes less space in landfills helping them to last longer and utilized more efficiently.

As we look to the future to the future we can imagine the world of packaging differently than we have over the past 200 years as the stage is set for the new normal of packaging.

The transition to flexible packaging has started, and will continue to proliferate into the future. This shift will be driven by common sense and logic and the “new” consumer of tomorrow will embrace it.

A walk through your local supermarket or mega super center will illustrate that this change is already dramatically underway. Aisle by Aisle we are seeing signs of transition across a multitude of markets and product categories. Some markets that were completely dominated by a legacy packaging format are now in some stage of transition.

Others who have not already started the transition will find it difficult to keep pace with the competition and other new entries into the market. Many of these new entrees to the market are clearly not choosing to utilize or introduce traditional legacy packaging that is dated, more expensive, more complicated to use and not feasible for their entrepreneurial start-up strategy.

This shift in packaging is not generally being driven as you would expect by the large multi-national consumer products company, but instead we are seeing packaging change driven by the smaller entrepreneurial company looking to enter the market and have found that by disrupting the category they are able to penetrate the market against some of the most dominate and powerful market leaders in the world.

You ask, why not just follow those multi-national leaders with the same packaging they have used for decades? This would seem so logical, after all that is what many did over the years “follow the leader” with every aspect of their marketing success including their traditional packaging. Many who followed that model over the past decades never made it, never were noticed, never could compete due to the “power of the brand” and the leverage that the multi-national brand could apply thorough out their retail, distribution and marketing dominance.

That dominance has proven to be less effective when you implement and support a flexible packaging renaissance strategy. The multi-national’s size and massive existing infrastructure prevents them from responding to the market shifts that are occurring particularly when it comes to a revolutionary shift which includes a new packaging style and marketing strategy.

Luckily most shifts are gradual or transitional and as a result companies of all sizes can adapt if they are open to change and are willing to evolve and pay attention to regional, national and global market trends and conditions.

The flexible packaging material industry is continuing to evolve by developing mono-layer packaging structures which are “recycle-ready”, not only for low barrier applications, but for applications requiring extended shelf life. Other substrate options are coming on the scene including bio-degradable, compostable, as well as paper-based materials in an effort to accommodate environmental concerns.

As flexible packaging machinery suppliers, our industry is very well positioned to see the trends and drivers in the market. We feel the pulse of the industry through the inquiries we receive and the collective feedback gained from our global machinery, automation and packaging material supply collaborators.

We are seeing the dynamics of packaging change up close and personal through the supply of thousands of machines to a multitude of clients and applications from systems to support a pilot plant or start-up operation to the supply of integrated – multi machine systems strategy to accommodate the shift from traditional high volume retail super market business to a multitude of SKU’s providing consumer choice  and package size ranges providing a variety of price points to accommodate convenience, retail, mega center, club store and food service package size range opportunities.

Look toward the horizon and be ready to adapt as the future dictates. There will be hard choices and it will take courage to change, but those who do will be rewarded with continued relevance and market success longevity.

About the Author

Dennis Calamusa is president and CEO of ALLIEDFLEX Technologies, Inc based in Sarasota, Fla. He has dedicated the past 30 years of his career to the commercialization of the standup pouch and other flexible packaging solutions in the North America market. His company ALLIEDFLEX Technologies has supplied hundreds of machines to the food, beverage, household and personal care industries which have brought thousands of products to market in innovative flexible packaging.