Flexible packaging is not only the fastest growing packaging category, but also a very rapidly evolving category. Here’s what you need to know about the trends that are currently shaping the flexible packaging market and their implications on packaging inks.
Key trend: Sustainability
Sub-trends: Water-based coatings, efficient and ergonomic packaging, plastic alternatives
Sustainability is one of the top drivers shaping the flexible packaging market right now, according to Suhas Chavannavar, Market Segment Manager of Flexible Packaging Ink Resins at BASF. Flexible packaging as a whole lends itself well to sustainability and cost savings, in large part because it is more ergonomic and efficient compared to rigid packaging. A flexible package tends to use less material overall, making it easier to ship in large quantities.
“Think about cans of fruit or vegetables: as packaging options, those are not as versatile or efficient in terms of what it takes to manufacture them, how much space they take up, and even what it takes to transport them,” Chavannavar explains.
Despite the advantages of flexible packaging, there is also tremendous concern globally regarding plastic pollution.
“The end-of-life stage is a big concern. Plastic pollution and the impact it has on the environment is reaching catastrophic levels,” says Chavannavar. “It takes resources to make this packaging, and then it gets thrown away. It ends up in the landfills, waterways, oceans, seas and rivers. Unlike paper or paper-based substances, it doesn’t degrade; it stays in the environment.”
In an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation, the industry is clamoring to address plastic pollution. Several leading organizations have made pledges to develop recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025. There is also growing support to eliminate single-use plastics such as straws and cups.
At the end of the day, what we can expect to see is an application of the reduce, reuse, recycle waste hierarchy. First, industry players will look to reduce the amount of packaging material used. This could take place through elimination of secondary or tertiary packaging, better packaging designs to eliminate need for packing material, or functional coatings to replace packaging layers.
We will continue to see greater adoption of more sustainable printing technologies.
Market Segment Manager of Flexible Packaging Ink Resins
Interesting developments in the field of energy cured printing inks are opening up the possibility of reducing layers by eliminating the need for lamination printing. Until recently, electron beam cured inks were utilized as topcoats to provide high resistance properties that can protect the graphics printed on the packaging. The need for interstation dryers hampered their use in printing inks.
Some recent developments can help eliminate the need for these interstation dryers. Resorting to surface printing with electron beam curing enables elimination of an additional layer of PE or OPP that is otherwise required to protect the graphics.
Moving forward the industry will also look to reuse packaging where possible. A good example of this is the Loop initiative. The initiative promotes refilling or reusing packaging, thereby eliminating the concerns with single-use plastic. Of course, this may require inks that provide higher resistance and are able to withstand multiple cycles of use.
There is a lot of focus on creating a circular economy by recycling flexible packaging. There are several challenges with recycling flexible packaging, for instance:
- It can be comprised of different substrates, which are required to impart different attributes, such as grease barrier and moisture barrier.
- Recycled resin may not provide similar performance to virgin grade resin.
- Limitations with collection, sorting and cleaning of used packaging material further complicate the desire to recycle.
The acknowledgement of the plastic waste crisis has brought different stakeholders together, and various initiatives and approaches are being explored. Some focus on reducing the complexity of flexible packaging by using monolayer constructions where possible, while others focus on chemical recycling.
Another approach to reducing complexity is to adopt surface printing instead of lamination printing where possible. The collection and sorting approaches are also being looked at for improvements.
“In parallel to the above initiatives, we will continue to see greater adoption of more sustainable printing technologies,” says Chavannavar. “Water-based ink resins are appealing because of their lower emissions and VOC content compared to solvent-based technologies. In the past, water-based inks were challenging to use in case of filmic substrates because of lower print speeds and quality of print compared to solvent-based alternatives. Continual advancements have helped overcome these drawbacks.”
When it comes to sustainability in flexible packaging, as in many other industries, the challenge lies in creating solutions which are not only environmentally friendly but also financially and technologically viable.
Key trend: Demographics and Consumer Lifestyle
Sub-trends: Snackable packaging, precooked foods, resealable bags, personalization, SKU proliferation, digital printing
Consumers have a big influence on the push for more environmentally friendly packaging, but their lifestyle habits also inform specific trends and growth in flexible packaging.
Different flexible packaging formats help people consume goods on their terms, whether it’s a busy person heating up a frozen meal, a health-conscious person looking for smaller snack portions to snack frequently, or someone who just wants a handful of candy before they reseal the bag and put it away.
“Millennials represent a significant portion of the population now,” Chavannavar explains. “Lifestyles are becoming busier and more active. They prefer to snack more often and eat precooked foods.” The young and increasingly diverse consumer population compels brand owners to cater to different tastes and needs, including customized or personalized packaging. This ultimately leads to SKU proliferation.
“Now we have all these different flavors, fragrances or varieties that people demand,” Chavannavar says. “It’s not uncommon to find upwards of forty thousand SKUs in a grocery store.”
The growth in specific food categories such as frozen foods, snacks and precooked meals drives the need for multi-layer flexible packaging that can provide the required barrier properties. When it comes to such packaging, typically lamination printing is adopted, and high bond strengths are a key requirement. The preferred ink technology or chemistry is polyurethanes. However, recent advancements in more water-based and electron beam cured inks is enabling adoption of environmentally friendlier inks.
“Styrene acrylic and polyurethane dispersion hybrids provide the best of both worlds: printability and bond strengths that are comparable to solvent-based alternatives. This is helping drive adoption of water-based inks for lamination printing too,” says Chavannavar.
Of late, there has also been a desire to customize or personalize packaging to the individual consumer. This could take a broader form, such as the Coke campaign with common names and phrases written on the cans, or a totally individualized form, such as Purina’s custom pet food blends with portraits of the owner’s pet on the package.
Supporting this trend is the growing adoption of digital printing technologies. Unlike flexographic printing, digital printing doesn’t require plates that transfer the image or graphic on to the packaging material. When it comes to flexography, one would need to switch a plate out each time a package was personalized for a consumer. Also, switching plates out for each print job is a cumbersome process needing careful alignment. It just isn’t feasible to personalize packaging without adopting digital printing.
Further aiding the adoption of digital printing is previously mentioned trend of SKU proliferation. With the rapid proliferation of SKUs that we are witnessing, print runs are contracting rapidly. Digital printers have print speeds which are significantly slower than some of the solvent based flexographic printers. With the contraction in the run lengths, digital printers are a viable alternative because they can better support the turnaround time and throughput.
Key trend: Health and Safety
Sub-trends: Regulations & water-based surface print binders
When it comes to health and safety, new rules and regulations are constantly emerging to shape the standards of packaging production. They influence everything from the substrates to the inks.
“In general, there’s more of a desire to adopt technologies that are safer for printing and packaging,” says Chavannavar. “A lot of folks in the industry are proactively embracing new standards and inquiring about presence of harmful substances in raw materials that they should be avoiding, especially when it comes to food packaging.”
Printing technologies or ink formulation approaches can also determine safety. Oftentimes, crosslinkers are added to water-based inks to achieve the high resistance properties demanded by certain packaging applications. Chavannavar mentions some of these crosslinkers can be extremely harmful to workers who are in close proximity to these chemicals.
“Some crosslinkers are extremely toxic, hazardous to the operators and expensive, and they lead to a lot of waste,” he explains. “When you add a crosslinker to the ink, it has a limited pot life — typically four to six hours. So, if you ran a particular print job and didn’t finish or consume all the ink in six hours, you would need to discard all that leftover ink. You can’t reuse it.”
Some of the latest water-based binders are helping to close the gap between resistance properties provided by inks that have harmful crosslinkers and ones that don’t. The self-crosslinking ability of the latest binders has been improved and optimized to boost resistance properties of the inks while also improving resolubility, which is critical to having good printability.
Packaging solutions continue to improve as new technologies develop. In the meantime, manufacturers work to keep up with changing consumer needs — and attracting attention with the all-important packaging on their products.
“Packaging plays a crucial role in differentiating one brand from another,” Chavannavar notes. “The demand has never been higher for flexible packaging and inks that can help differentiate packaging.”