The Pros and Cons of Flexible Packaging

Benefits, Trends and Challenges Impacting Flexible Packaging

By Moira Stein, Insights & Strategy at Berlin Packaging

Flexible packaging is the second largest pack type in the United States, holding a 30% volume share (following rigid plastics). It is commonly used for both primary and secondary packaging and includes bags/sachets, stand-up pouches, films, wrappers, tubes, and more.

According to GlobalData, unit volume is expected to grow by more than 13% between 2022 and 2027 to reach 230 billion units. Flexible packaging is extensively used in the food industry – including savory snacks, bakery & cereals, and confectionary – which will continue to drive its growth.

Benefits Of Flexible Packaging

Brands and consumers appreciate flexible packaging for a variety of reasons. It is:

Lightweight: Flexible packaging typically uses lighter materials that provide significant weight savings compared to glass, rigid plastic, and stainless steel. This can result in reduced transportation and energy costs, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and greater efficiencies throughout the supply chain. According to the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), 1.5 pounds of flexible plastic will package the same amount of liquid food or beverage as 50 pounds of glass, 6 pounds of rigid PET, and 3 pounds of aluminum.

Economical: Flexible packaging is often cheaper than rigid alternatives because it can be less expensive to produce, transport, and store. Because flexible packaging can be stacked, compressed, or folded, it takes up less space during storage, transportation, and on store shelves. This space efficiency yields cost savings for warehousing and shipping. According to the FPA, 26 truckloads of glass packaging are necessary to fill the same amount of product as one truckload of unfilled flexible packaging.

Versatile:  Flexible packaging has many applications and formats. It is easily customizable to different sizes and shapes, and a variety of coatings and decorations can be applied. Flexible packaging allows for high-quality printing (e.g., flexography, rotogravure, digital) and surface treatments, enabling brand owners to create eye-catching designs, highlight key product attributes, and deliver unique tactile experiences. Specialty shapes provide distinctive product profiles on store shelves to attract shoppers.

Protective: Flexible films incorporate barrier layers to protect products against moisture, oxygen, heat, odor, and light. Flexible packaging can seal in flavor and freshness, preserving contents for an extended period. Flexible pouches often include easy-open mechanisms and resealable options, such as zippers and spouts. Stand-up pouches with child-resistant-capable closures meet the requirements of the medical, home care, agriculture, and chemicals industries. Innovative fitments and technologies engineer aseptic spouted pouches.

Durable: Unlike glass, flexible packaging is shatterproof. While it is not immune to punctures from sharp objects, it resists dents and deformations that can mar other pack forms, such as aluminum packaging.

Portable: Given its lightweight, malleable, and durable properties, it is easy for consumers to transport for on-the-go use.

Sustainability Challenges

When it comes to sustainability, flexible packaging has pros and cons, with several factors contributing to its environmental impact. On the plus side, flexible packaging is lightweight, and the reduced transportation requirements contribute to a smaller environmental footprint. Branch Basics Oxygen Boost uses a pouch that weighs 89% less than a plastic container and holds twice the amount of product.

This results in reductions of 14.6 tons of CO2 emissions every year in shipping. Refillable and reusable packaging is a top growth driver of flexible packaging. Many household and personal care brands have turned to refill pouches to meet their sustainable packaging goals. Late last year, Babo Botanicals launched their first eco-friendly refill pouch for their shampoo & wash collection. The pouches are made with 30% post-consumer recycled plastic and use 80% less plastic than two 16oz bottles, reducing the company’s use of virgin plastic.

When it comes to recyclability, flexible packaging poses some challenges. Multi-material flexibles, including combinations of plastic and foil, plastic and paper, and foil and paper can complicate the recycling process because the different materials can’t be separated. Most municipal curbside recycling systems cannot handle packaging films. Some retailers will accept flexible packaging with in-store drop-off bins. However, the Flexible Packaging Association estimates only 5% of the film is collected through store drop-off for recycling.

Three Trends Driving Innovation

Sustainability is just one of several trends impacting the flexible packaging market.

Sustainability:  Innovations are being introduced to improve the recyclability of flexible packaging. GlobalData states, “Mono-material innovation and implementation in the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) market is essential in moving flexible packaging towards being seen as sustainable and a circular packaging form.”

Colgate-Palmolive developed the first recyclable toothpaste tube made with 100% recyclable HDPE plastic. According to the brand’s website, “By combining different layers of HDPE laminate at varying thicknesses, Colgate engineers were able to produce a soft, easy-to-squeeze recyclable tube that will also protect the product across roughly 150 brushing occasions during the life of a typical 6 oz. tube.”

Stonyfield Organic yogurt launched a new fully recyclable spouted pouch for their YoBaby line. The new package replaces the previous multi-laminate pouch with a mono-material polyethylene (PE) recycle-ready laminate.

New package designs replace the previous multi-laminate pouch with a recycle-ready mono-materials. Image courtesy of Berlin Packaging.

E-Commerce: According to Forbes, more than 20% of retail purchases made in 2024 are expected to occur online. Flexible packaging can be an effective e-commerce solution that meets consumer satisfaction and retailer requirements, including those set forth by Amazon and Walmart. Amazon’s Compact by Design identifies products with an efficient package design.

Due to its ability to conform to a variety of product shapes and sizes, flexible packaging can be right-sized to improve volume utilization and reduce air in the package. In addition to space reduction, its lightweight properties provide shipping efficiencies and cost savings. E-commerce is also impacting flexible packaging when it comes to shipping materials. According to Amazon, 49% of their shipments in 2022 were delivered in flexible packaging. They expanded their use of paper-padded mailers across the U.S. and Canada, replacing 99% of harder-to-recycle mixed-material padded bags.

Right-sized flexible packaging can meet Amazon’s Compact by Design requirement by improving volume utilization and reducing air in the package. Image courtesy of Berlin Packaging.

Digitalization:   Technology is playing an increasingly significant role in our everyday lives, with today’s consumers always “on” and connected. According to GlobalData, more than half of global consumers (55%) are actively looking for smartphone connectivity when making purchases, and 42% are always or often influenced by how digitally advanced a product or service is. With information at their fingertips, consumers scrutinize products and brands before making purchase decisions.

Digital tools like QR codes and near-field communication (NFC) technology allow consumers to connect with brands in more robust and engaging ways. A quick phone scan redirects shoppers to a brand’s website to view product tutorials, browse products, read reviews, discover ingredient information, learn about a company’s social or environmental initiatives, and more. Besides consumer engagement, smart technology can help companies with real-time monitoring and traceability of products throughout the supply chain. Smart sensors embedded in flexible packaging can provide data on temperature, humidity, location, and more.

Smart sensors embedded in flexible packaging can provide data on temperature, humidity, location, and more. Image courtesy of Berlin Packaging.

About The Author

Moira Stein with Insights & Strategy at Berlin Packaging has spent 20+ years working in brand marketing, with a focus on strategy and design. For the past three years, she has helped Berlin Packaging’s customers leverage consumer and category insights to develop strategic package design solutions that create impact and drive sales. Moira has experience across a variety of sectors, including food & beverage, personal care, and home care. Her clients have included large CPG companies like SC Johnson, Kraft, and ConAgra Foods, as well as small distilleries, wineries, craft breweries, and start-ups.

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