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October 1, 2007

6 Min Read
Pliable wrapping flexes its muscles

Flexible packaging demand is rising at up to 6%/yr with products becoming more sophisticated in structure to meet retailers’ and customers’ requirements, says Paul Bullock, sales manager cast film at Reifenhäuser (Troisdorf, Germany).

Why the increase? Bullock says the food sector wants to offer better convenience (peelability and re-closing technologies) and appearance, longer shelf life and freshness, and changes in sizes to satisfy smaller families and an aging population.

Flexible packaging will continue to conquer new applications supported by barrier-property improvements and a favorable environmental balance, says John Thompson, marketing manager film and fiber, at polymer producer Borealis (Vienna, Austria). He cites retortable and nonretortable standup pouches for dried and chilled food, demand for which in Western Europe is growing at 8%/yr, and flexible confectionary packaging growth in Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe where traditionally sweets were sold loose. Pouches and bags for bread and fresh food are also showing healthy increases in Russia and other Eastern European countries.

Rolf Scherrenberg, manager technical marketing at polymer producer Sabic Europe (Geleen, Netherlands), says coextrusion is continuing to grow due to downgauging advantages compared to competitive materials. In some markets environmental initiatives of major retailers (Marks & Spencer, Wal-Mart) are pushing a “less-material, less-packaging” move that should benefit flexible packaging. Thompson says environmental pressures are still less evident in the U.S., which tends to be more price-sensitive than other markets.

Although the environmental drive by some retailers is high profile, says Simon Balderson, director of packaging processor Sirane (Telford, England), “It is important not to overplay the environmental drivers. Most consumers are still looking for shelf appeal, shelf life, safety, branding—and convenience above all.”

Although polyethylene (PE) remains the dominant flexible packaging resin, with more than 50% of the total, Kraft Foods (Glenview, IL) sees polypropylene (PP) as the flexible material offering the best future. “PP is the lightest of all known commodity thermoplastics—34% lighter than PET—and [therefore] offers the potential for lightweighting,” says Surendra Agarwal, senior technical consultant at the company. “It has lower cost/volume than HDPE, LLDPE, LDPE, high-impact polystyrene, and PET. It is retortable, microwaveable, and sterilizable.”

Kraft says PP can successfully replace competitive resins. “PP offers the performance of engineering plastics at the cost of commodity plastics. [It] is the poor man’s engineering plastics,” Agarwal says.

Analyst Horst Maack, president of Maack Business Services (Au, Switzerland), also sees more PP replacing PE, especially in flexible, modified-atmosphere packaging (MAP) solutions. Also to be watched will be nylon 6 barrier material with up to 4% nanoclay. This, he says, allows the package to stay sealed for storage and microwave heating as the top barrier film separates from the self-venting film, regulating the excessive pressure buildup without rupturing the web.

Reifenhäuser’s Bullock says at the moment that supply-side problems with bioplastics and their high price are holding up major developments in this sector. Despite these difficulties, film processor Alcan Packaging (Kreuzlingen, Switzerland) sees high potential in biodegradable films, at least in developed regions, and has introduced an SiOx-coated polylactic acid (PLA) film under the Ceramis brand with high vapor and gas barrier, see-through properties, and complete compostability of lidding films or pouch laminates. Treofan (Raunheim, Germany) just introduced a three-layer PLA lidding film that is transparent, breathable, and has good sealing and peel properties. From Amcor Flexibles (Barnwood, England) in July came a 40-µm coextruded heat-seal film pack, PushPop, for UK retailer Tesco, for vertical form-fill-seal (VFFS) applications, based on biodegradable resin NaturePLus from Mater-Bi/Novamont (Novara, Italy).

But not all markets are experiencing the same growth in flexibles. Emerging economies such as India and Pakistan are seeing demand for small, single-use flexible film pouches for toiletries where purchasers cannot afford larger solid packs.

Michael DelFranco, thermal transfer overprinting product manager at printing equipment maker Videojet Technologies (Wood Dale, IL), says in developed markets VFFS manufacturers expect continued growth in pouches thanks to intelligent use of valves and gussets.

“Flexible film allows the retailer to put more items in the same area,” DelFranco says, noting the evolution of packing for foods like tuna, which is now also sold in pouches rather than just tins.

Borealis’ Thompson says metal and aluminum foil are under threat due to skyrocketing prices for metalized films. “We see plastics film benefitting at the expense of aluminum and paper for the reason of price/performance, and limitations of aluminum in terms of film thickness reduction,” he says. “We expect downgauging trends to continue, driven by cost-cutting measures and environmental pressure.”

DSM Engineering Plastics (Sittard, Netherlands) expects an up to 7% growth in demand for flexible food packaging with increased shelf life and improved barrier. The company just introduced Akulon XP-brand nylon 6 for meat, sausage, cheese, fish, and coffee packaging that is said to have a broader processing window, more uniform thickness distribution in cast film, and more melt strength, which can optimize the LDPE/LLDPE ratio in multilayer films without sacrificing the mechanical properties of the film.

“As food becomes more expensive and at the same time quality becomes more key, longer shelf life in the whole supply chain is critical,” says Richard Pieters, Akulon business manager, DSM Engineering Plastics. Reifenhäuser’s Bullock says shelf life of three months or more is now a common requirement for many food products, notably partially baked bread packs or cheese encased in a gas-flushed barrier laminate with EVOH that is sandwich printed.

On the horizon

Besides longer shelf life, analyst Syed Rashid Husain, VP of Al-Azzaz Est (Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia), says handling convenience and changing lifestyles in an ever-more affluent Middle East are pushing flexible film use in the Gulf area. “The changes in lifestyle are drastic, literally from ‘Camel-to-Cadillac’ [mentality],” Husain says.

The presence of maids in homes and a virtual non-interest in running a family kitchen has created a situation where there is greater dependence on prepared-packaged foods packed in flexible films, he says. The climate conditions of the region also are spurring demand for higher-barrier packaging. In the West, Sirane’s Balderson says, “The market is still being driven by time-poor consumers with lower cooking skills looking for increased convenience. Smaller households mean smaller pack sizes and less drive to cook.”

Videojet’s DelFranco notes growing requests to print larger-format graphics, such as nutritional statements, on flexible packaging. Other growth areas are convenience portions beyond the bite-size, snack-size markets. As weight management becomes more of an issue in various societies, he says, Videojet sees more non-snack food manufacturers making snack-sized versions of their traditional products.

Film processor RPC Cobelplast (Lokeren, Belgium) worked together with food processor Douwe Egberts and recently introduced a flexible, high-barrier PP-based material to package a new brand of concentrated coffee drink, Café Switch. This coextruded, 450-µm cast film allows consumers to “pump and froth” the contends with their thumbs in two flexible compartments.

DSM’s Pieters points to a new development at his company, a so-called Emerging Business Area (EBA) for special packaging. This development sector is combining know-how in bacterial growth, food properties, and food processing and logistics to come up with intelligent food packaging. The goal is to produce flexible packaging that monitors food decay and bacterial growth. This would show the exact end-of-product freshness by changing the color in the packaging.

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