It is time to be flexible...

April 29, 2024
Automated machines and flexible packaging combine efficiency and sustainability.
Courtesy of PMMI

Process manufacturers must address the demand for an ever-expanding array of product variations, package configurations and sizes. As a result, primary and secondary packaging equipment is becoming increasingly automated and flexible to streamline the adjustments needed to shift among a wider range of products and packaging with minimal downtime and operator intervention. Another requirement in today’s marketplace is sustainability. 

Flexible packaging accommodates all these needs. The highly adaptable format is not only available in a variety of configurations, but also can be equipped with convenience features such as spouts, valves and easy-open/reclose zippers. Processors also may choose between filling and sealing pre-made bags or form-fill-seal operations and a variety of sealing options. 

From a sustainability perspective, the light weight of flexible packaging versus rigid packaging means a lower carbon footprint. In addition, flexible packaging materials can be recyclable, derived from renewable resources, contain recycled content and/or be compostable. Direct printing can provide source reduction by eliminating the need for labels, which add weight to the package and could complicate its recyclability. Digital printing technology also supports smaller, more precise print runs, reduces waste and energy consumption, and offers the potential to include more detailed product information, interactive elements like QR codes and customization options that were previously cost-prohibitive.

With all these advantages, the use of flexible film will expand at a 4% to 6% compound annual growth rate through 2028, according to projections referenced in 2023 PACKAGING COMPASS: Evaluating Trends in U.S. Packaging Design Over the Next Decade and Implications for the Future of a Circular Packaging System, a report published by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, and AMERIPEN (the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment). On the downside for sustainability, only 1.9% of the U.S. population has access to flexible film recycling so a lot these materials end up in landfills, and it will take considerable effort to achieve a circular economy. 

A circular economy depends on recycling and will require an expanded recycling infrastructure – better collection, sortation and end-of-life reprocessing. This could involve widespread use of chemical recycling. This emerging technology reverts materials to their original monomers, thereby improving recycled resin quality by reducing contamination, color or scent concerns, which could complicate regulatory acceptance of recycled resins for food-contact applications. 

A circular economy also requires use of recycled content in new products, and commitments to recycled content are growing. Design for recycling guidelines, developed by several organizations, are helping identify combinations of polymers, labels and additives that do not hinder a package’s recyclability. However, a disconnect between strong demand and insufficient supply and processing capacity for recycled resin must be overcome

Compostable materials offer another avenue for circularity but also are hampered by a lack of infrastructure. According to statistics from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, only 27% of the U.S. population has access to curbside composting programs, and only 11% of those composting programs accept packaging. Investments in composting infrastructure will be needed if this is to become a viable end-of-life option for packaging. 

Establishing a circular economy also will require standardized definitions for terms like recycling and composting as well as regulatory support, particularly Extended Producer Responsibility programs, which shift the financial and operational responsibilities for end-of-life package/product management from consumers and governments to producers. 

Collaboration across the value chain will be crucial in overcoming current challenges and advancing toward a circular economy. The insights provided by the Packaging Compass report offer a roadmap for stakeholders at all levels to navigate the evolving landscape of packaging sustainability. In some cases, it will be necessary to adopt more sustainable materials. To help that transition, the Flexible Packaging Association, PMMI, and its OpX Leadership Network have published Best Practice: Transitioning Flexible Materials. This report includes data on materials usage and a flow chart of the tasks required for transitioning flexible films. It also outlines the responsibilities of each group involved in the process and details each stage and task. 

Processors working to achieve a more circular economy should plan to attend PACK EXPO International (Nov. 3–6, 2024, McCormick Place, Chicago) where sustainable and flexible packaging innovations will be a major focus. Ranking as the biggest packaging and processing event on the planet in 2024, the show will present 2,500 exhibitors spread across more 1.2 million net square feet of floor space and foster idea-sharing among 40-plus vertical industries. Highlights include free educational sessions, myriad networking opportunities and solutions to address automation, production efficiency, sustainability, flexibility and e-commerce needs, as well as other hot topics and trends. For more information, visit

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