With a growth rate of approximately 4-5 percent annually, it has been expanding more quickly than rigid packaging, giving it a bigger share of the total packaging market. Sales in some segments of flexible packaging, such as those for shrink and barrier films, are reported to be rising at double-digit levels.
Flexible packaging producers and their polymer suppliers have been able to meet the need for a cut in costs, particularly transportation. They have been satisfying the requirement among retail chains and brand owners for lighter materials, which means that delivery trucks are carrying less weight at a time of steep increases in gasoline prices.
Thinner films have also helped to limit the impact of big increases in the prices of major polymers like polyethylene and polypropylene.
Consumers continue to want more convenience, more ready-made meals, smaller packs and safer and fresher food products, so that quality has to be maintained with the lower costs.
Strengthening public awareness about the importance of the environment in the face of global warming has also prompted a swing to biodegradable packaging, with which there can be problems of quality, including with standards of printing.
The greater variety in flexible packaging has resulted in more customization of inks. Producers of inks for the packaging sector are having to put more emphasis on service and technical support.
“Our chemists are in close touch with the converters and film makers to ensure that the best results are achieved for specific types of flexible packaging,” explained Anton Joyce, marketing manager for Flint Group’s packaging inks division. “I don’t think anyone is supplying simple inks any more which can be applied to any polyolefin or aluminum surfaces. A very special type of ink is needed for a tortable pouch which can withstand 15-25 minutes in boiling water.”
Sun Chemical says it is working on a daily basis with downstream customers, providing printing solutions, running innovation workshops, ensuring sustainability and giving color management advice.
“This is an intensifying area of activity for us,” said Felipe Mellado, corporate vice president and group managing director at Sun Chemical Europe. “The key technical challenges include the need for high barrier and low-migration materials, anti-bacterial and intelligent packaging, and the application of digital printing, as well as lightweight materials and improved convenience.”
While more downgauging is resulting in thinner film, the printing itself is being carried out at higher speeds. Biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP) films are now being printed at speeds of well over 400 meters per minute, double the rate of 10 years ago. Machinery manufacturers are already saying they can accelerate their equipment to speeds of 500-600 meters per minute if the polymers were available to run on them.
In order to extend the barrier properties of film, they are becoming increasingly multilayered, mostly in the form of laminates or co-extruded sheets comprising different polymers.
Packaging companies can use as many as four or five polymers in a single film. Kloeckner Pentaplast, a major German packaging company, has been employing 15 different polymers in its films for barrier food packaging. Some of the multilayered films include combinations such as polypropylene, polyethylene, polyamide, polystyrene and ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH).
“Clearly the proliferation of substrate options provides the whole packaging value chain with opportunities for differentiation, added functionality and value,” said Mr. Mellado.
In addition to the surge in the application of multilayered films, there has also been a strong rise in output of types of stretch and shrink films, particularly sleeves which can fit around rigid packages such as glass bottles.
Stretch films have become the largest market for the low density category of polyethylene film in Europe, with sales of more than one million metric tons of polymer resin in 2006, according to the UK-based consultancy Applied Market Information Ltd. (AMI).
In shrink packaging, collation film which is used to bring together products like beverage containers in single packs, is also growing rapidly, amounting to a €1.2 billion ($1.7 billion) market last year in Europe with a usage of 800,000 metric tons. This rise has been driven by the popularity of metallocene polymers, which combine stiffness and transparency with flexibility. Metallocene films, whose usage in collation films has been rising at 60 percent annually, can provide surfaces with a good level of printability.
Printed shrink film is part of the trend to retail ready packaging (RRP) in Europe, which enables merchandise to be moved direct to supermarket shelves with a minimum of handling. This necessitates the display of promotional graphics on both the outside, secondary packaging as well as on the primary packaging around the product.
The need for lower transportation and logistics costs is being accompanied by an even greater emphasis on shelf-orientated marketing.
“We know that 70 percent of the decision making by the consumer is made at the shelf in the store,” said Jo Watkins, marketing director for liquid and packaging inks at Sun Chemical Europe. “There is very little pre-planned decision making and, therefore, packaging is the key consumer advertising tool. As such, the creativity and aesthetics of flexible packaging is critical.”
Sun Chemical has just launched a color management software system in Europe which enables packaging developers to ensure a consistency in corporate spot colors displayed on a wide variety of substrates.
Siegwerk, the second-largest global producer of inks for flexible packaging, labels and liquid food packaging, is currently running a series of “INKday” conferences for its packaging customers throughout Europe to help them raise their levels of creativity. The meetings have been taking place in locations such as galleries and homes of art collections.
“Packaging can do a lot to make a product unique,” said Thomas Reiner, a consultant who has been speaking about trends in the packaging industry at the conferences. Among the Siegwerk innovations highlighted at the events have been two component ink and lacquer systems and ranges of inks for retortable stand-up pouches.
Retailers and brand owners are trying to encourage collaboration through the supply chain to boost the visual impact of products on the shelves, while ensuring they are made of materials more acceptable to consumers.
“A key development (in flexible packaging printing) is the increasingly important role of brand owners,” said John Agnoletto, marketing development manager for packaging graphics at Ciba Specialty Chemicals. “Brand owners are putting greater emphasis on sustainable packaging and are also playing a more strategic role in the printing value chain.”
As a result, companies like Ciba, which has recently expanded into effect pigments while also supplying color management software and technologies for the pre-treatment of films to improve the adhesion of inks, are promoting their products and solutions directly to the brand owners.
Among the latest innovations being offered by ink producers and other suppliers are inks and coatings which have a tactile and aromatic as well as visual dimension. Easy-open and resealable packaging is made with soft-touch films with a satin and translucent surface.
The desire for sustainability has led to a shift towards the use in packaging of biopolymers made from natural materials as opposed to petrochemicals-based raw materials.
Supermarket chains believe they can improve their environmental credibility by having more of their merchandise packaged in biodegradable and hence compostable film, like that based on polylactic acid (PLA).
Biopolymers have quality problems at the moment, particularly with printing since their surfaces can inhibit the adhesion of inks to the film.
“We’re working with several development partners in producing bioplastic substrate solutions for the flexible packaging market,” said Mr. Mellado. “New recycling regulations, along with the emerging definition of the meaning of sustainability to the packaging industry, will in the long term certainly provide the whole industry with a new level of complexity.”
New European Union legislation on recycling will encourage the composting of packaging waste, while it will also categorize incineration of packaging film as recycling because it will be regarded as energy recovery.
“One of the difficulties still be sorted out is the definition of compostability, which could be an important issue for ink producers,” noted Mr. Joyce.
Tougher rules in the EU on emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could hasten a shift from solvent-based to waterborne inks in flexible packaging.
“The great majority of inks in the sector are currently solvent-based, but it looks likely that water-based inks will increase their market share because people will see them as being more environmentally friendly,” Mr. Joyce said.
BASF recently introduced a dispersion centered on a resin technology called Joncryl FLX, which improves the printability of water-based inks on polyethylene and polypropylene substrates.
The company estimates that water-based inks have only a 5 percent share of the flexible packaging market, mainly in applications like shopping bags. “With Joncryl FLX. a higher quality level is reached and other segments can be converted to water-based inks,” said a BASF official. “Water-based inks are the most cost-effective alternative to meeting the current environmental regulations.”
Retail chains and brand owners are planning to display carbon footprints on packaging, showing the amounts of CO2 emitted during the manufacture of the product and packaging material. Environmental matters will continue to be a major influence on trends in flexible packaging in Europe.