What initiatives and technological advancements are allowing flexible packaging solutions to meet sustainable needs and new regulations? Kiran Grewal reports.

The confectionery industry offers many different packaging options that fit various consumers’ tastes and preferences – from soft chocolate bars to hard candies, cereal bars to snacks, the product characteristics influence the packaging type and packing process. That’s why you can find various packaging applications on the shelves, like horizontally packed flow wraps, rotary twisted candy wraps or vertically filled and sealed premade bags and sachets. 

“To meet these different product requirements, various packaging materials are used on the market, from paper and board to flexibles (mostly polypropylene, polyethylene or polyester), and aluminium,” says Eric Valette, Innovation BU Flexibles Director at Coveris. “The choice between one or the other is always a result of product characteristics, shelf-life requirements, logistic constraints, packaging convenience, and consumer expectations. However, due to the global focus on recyclable packaging materials, more and more brands switch to paper or single source flexible materials for easier recycling.”

Stephen Langstaff, Innovia Films Business Development Manager, Packaging gives us a closer look at the materials and their purposes: “Polypropylene (PP) flexible films, both in Cast and Biaxially Oriented Polypropylene (BOPP) formats offer properties that enable them to be the mainstay for flexible packaging in the confectionery sector. They are predominantly used for applications such as flow wrap, box overwrap, within laminate structures and in-box bags.   

“The high stiffness and transparency of PP gives both excellent machinability and consumer appeal. PP films can be coated or coextruded to optimise oxygen barrier properties for a particular confectionery application. All BOPP films have excellent moisture barrier performance. Low temperature sealing skins and coatings are now commonly available, again providing outstanding machinability and strong hermetic seals. Cast PP can be used to improve both these features.” 

So which of these are a sustainable option? Stephen says: “From an environmental perspective, PP films offer a very low carbon footprint and are fully recyclable. Their low-density makes them the most resource efficient packaging option because of their lightweight.”

Sustainability is now fundamental to the design of every new product launched. Be that the use of mono material laminate constructions such as BOPP and Cast PP lamination, or in the reduction of a products carbon footprint using non-fossil based raw materials. In 2019, the UK produced over 300,000* tonnes of flexible plastic packaging, which is about 22%* of all UK consumer plastic waste. Of this, only 6%* of flexible plastic is currently recycled.

A new collaborative fund, founded in May 2021 by Ecosurety in collaboration with Mars, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, Pepsico and Unilever, is seeking to give value to flexible plastics so they are properly recycled. The Flexible Plastic Fund wants to incentivise flexible plastic recycling as quickly as possible. Ecosurety and the founding partners created a concept to involve everyone in the flexible plastic supply chain.

“Whether you call it flexi, flexible, soft or ‘plastic bags and wrapping’ there are loads of ways to describe things like wrappers, packets, film and pouches. The important thing is that by working together, we can make sure it gets recycled,” says The Flexible Plastic Fund.

So, how does it work? Businesses who own brands that use flexible plastic packaging invest in the Fund to become partners with the Fund. Then, participating retailers host flexible packaging collection points in-store where individuals can drop off their flexible plastics for recycling. It’s tracked as it is collected and transpired to an approved recycler who transforms it into something new. These new products generate PRNs (packaging recovery note) which are like certificates proving something has been recycled. If the recycling also reaches the Fund’s high standards, the Flexible Packaging Fund pays for the PRNs which are passed on to their partners.

Stephen Langstaff, Innovia Films Business Development Manager

These initiatives, which are becoming more and more popular as awareness and demand grows, certainly offer a solution to creating a wider life cycle of flexible plastic materials, rather than a single-use operation. 

What does new regulation mean for the packaging industry

The plastic packaging tax, said to begin in April 2022, will ultimately affect UK manufacturers of plastic packaging, importers of plastic packaging, business customers of manufacturers and importers of plastic packaging, and consumers who buy plastic packaging or goods in plastic packaging in the UK. 

To mitigate against disproportionate administrative burdens in comparison to the tax liability for those who are likely affected, there will be an exemption for manufacturers and importers of less than 10 tonnes of plastic packaging per year. So what can be done to ensure packaging manufacturers are meeting regulatory requirements? 

“The inclusion of recycled content in PP films is on everybody’s wish list, but this is currently restricted by food compliance or the availability of food compliant materials e.g. Chemically recycled polymer,” says Eric. 

He adds: “There are two main directions that have been driving the development of alternative, more environmentally friendly packaging materials: the need to replace aluminium and the interest in the barrier potential of paper. Until recently aluminium provided the optimal barrier protection from gas and light. However, today we know alternatives that offer similar protection, like AlOx, SiOX and metallisation coatings. On the other side, the consumer pressure on using natural packaging materials push the industry to further examine the barrier functionality of paper.   

“To answer these types of market demands, in 2021 Coveris launched the PaperBarrier Seal solution, an innovative paper-based packaging material offering protection against oxygen, vapour and aroma. Thanks to its unique paper coating, the material enables sealability whilst still remaining fully recyclable in existing paper streams. Offering the same product protection as plastic alternatives, PaperBarrier Seal additionally ensures comparable production efficiencies as standard packaging solutions,” he explains. 

Extending the shelf life of confectionery to reduce waste is primarily done using high barrier packaging, which previously was an unrecyclable material, but Stephen says advancements in technology has now led to a better option. 

Stephen says: “Improvements in co-extrusion technology have now enabled BOPP flexible films to be produced with high barrier EVOH, while still maintaining their recyclability.  These can be used to replace PVdC coated films which are currently the film of choice in the barrier films market but are not recyclable.  

“High barrier metallised PP films are now also available as a foil replacement and therefore leads to mono material laminates that can be fully recycled, along with Cast PP, in the PP recycling stream. SiOx and Alox depositions are also gaining ground, but many technical and commercial difficulties still exist.”

Are the big brands doing their bit? 

Big players like Mondelez International for example, are committing to sustainable practices when it comes to their packaging. They say: “Currently, over 75% of our packaging is paper-based, glass or metal– all of which are currently recycled or recyclable. The other portion of our packaging is mostly made up of flexible plastic films used to preserve foods and prevent food waste. By 2025, 100% of our packaging around the globe will be recyclable. In addition to the great impact this has on the environment, using less packaging provides an economic benefit by reducing material, transportation and disposal costs.”

“With so many big brands such as Nestle, committing to reducing their carbon footprint by 2030 the best route is to use Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to identify the most appropriate materials to use for their packaging requirements,” says Stephen. 

He continues: “Innovia Films believes that the war is not on plastic, but on carbon footprint and moves to develop a strategy that fits the environmental demands of the 21st Century. LCA has become an increasingly important part of their new product development focus.” “However,” he warns. “Brands need to be careful about moving to other alternative forms of packaging. Many can increase the carbon footprint or have other negative LCA impacts.” 

Eric agrees: “Every packaging producer should answer this market demand. At Coveris we take sustainability very seriously and address the topic on different levels, both on a group level, through our ‘No Waste’ strategy, and locally. As a company we also strive to develop new packaging designs using fully recyclable materials (like the range of MonoFlex films made 100% from PE), and post-consumer recycled content (like the Duralite-R film which is made from 50% post-consumer and 50% post-industrial recycled content). 

“Sustainability is now fundamental to the design of every new product launched”

He adds: “The global sustainability focus has redirected the packaging development from user-friendly features (like easy opening, reclosed functionality, etc.) to sustainability-focus. At Coveris we believe the first stage of this evolution was the conversion to mono materials packaging. The next stage involves a deeper and more complex understanding of packaging impact on the environment. We believe our ‘No Waste’ strategy is the answer to this challenge, which focuses our sustainability efforts on the idea of no waste of the products we pack, no waste of our packaging solutions or no waste in our operations, enforcing recycling and second life approaches.”

let’s wrap it up

Due to innovative advancements, the flexible packaging sector embraces these new sustainability challenges and has provided solutions to enable a greener future. However, it’s been made clear that recyclable materials alone isn’t a simple quick fix, but packaging manufacturers need to look at the overall operation and carbon footprint to ensure they are meeting eco-conscious demands. Stephen says: “Innovia Films believes PP confectionery packaging has a strong future, as it can be recycled with other polyolefin films for which there is already a route to recycling in many countries. Ultimately recycling of flexible films will increase, which will provide the needed polymer for a truly circular economy.  

“Options already exist for BOPP films that contain a percentage of sustainable raw materials, or post-consumer (via chemical recycling), or post-industrial raw materials. All contribute to the reduction of fossil-based PP. Any of these options, will in turn, ensure that the carbon footprint of packaged products will reduce, especially as flexible packaging maintains product quality for longer, reducing waste. In summary, there is definitely a place in the confectionery market for polyolefin products such as BOPP.” 

Eric simply states: “Innovation including flexible packaging in confectionery products is trending because of the higher consumer demand for the development of innovative, healthy and more sustainable products. Consumers no longer settle for any chocolate confectionery product; instead, they do look for products that are better for them and the planet.”

Eco Flexibles bakes up sustainable packaging design for Lantmännen Unibake 

UK headquartered sustainable flexible packaging business, Eco Flexibles, has supported renowned bakery product supplier to the retail, wholesale and food service sectors, Lantmännen Unibake, with the development of recyclable flexible packaging for its Schulstad Bake at Home range of products. 

As sustainable packaging continues to dominate commercial food and drink product development, Lantmännen sought to create fully recyclable packaging to both communicate the quality of the product and support its environmental agenda. 

In close collaboration, the Eco Flexibles team developed and supplied a high-performing surface printed monopolymer film, despite the pressures of tight turnaround times and Covid-19 supply challenges.  

Simon Buswell, Sales & Marketing Director at Eco Flexibles, explains: “Recyclability is front and centre for brands today, but flexible packaging has historically been a more complicated case with multiple substrate layers and adhesives. To close the loop, we champion bespoke high-performance monopolymer materials to help brands move away from the ‘take, make, waste’ linear packaging business model.  

“The Schulstad Bake at Home line is a go-to household name, and a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate what our team can achieve and how fundamentally value-adding the right sustainability approach can be. The surface printed monopolymer film with matt lacquer is eye-catching and looks outstanding on the shelf! The fact our team was able to deliver at the height of the global pandemic is a real testament to our expertise.” 

The Schulstad Bake at Home range of packaging was developed and printed with award-winning Asahi AWP™ water washable plates, which eliminate harmful VOC solvent washout from the prepress process. Aiming to dispel sustainable packaging myths, Eco Flexibles seeks to show how sustainable packaging isn’t a compromise or concession – and can be aligned with the performance demands of today’s high-volume packaging. 

Paulina Gorska, Marketing Manager at Lantmännen, adds: “What was fundamental to this project was how Eco Flexibles took the time to really understand our business and our objectives. We are always looking at ways to make our business more sustainable, but we also need to bear in mind that security, speed and barrier performance are key. We need to deliver the exemplary quality that our products are known for. 

“What could have been a very challenging period for carrying out a large-scale packaging project was made simple. With a collaborative approach, we have retained the vibrancy and visual impact of our brand identity and the end result really captures attention on the shelf. We are also particularly pleased with the use of water-washable plate technologies, contributing to a CO2 reduction. From start to finish, a very impressive project!” 

BREAKING NEWS: How Russia and Ukraine conflict impacts packaging sector

European packaging institutes call for joint action to defend shared values in packaging science, education and cooperation. Kennedy’s Confection speaks with NVC Managing Director, Michael Nieuwesteeg MSc MEng: 

What exactly are you standing against?
EPIC and its constituent member associations like NVC are founded on mutual respect and freedom of information exchange. We stand in defence of these values, so very fundamental to our institutes but also to the society we are living in. The Russian packaging organisation is not an EPIC member, despite several invitations over the past two decades.

What does packaging have to do with it?
Packaging is the activity of temporarily integrating an external function and a product to enable the use of the product. The world ‘does it’ (packaging, filling, ….) more than 300,000 times each second. A sustainable future of this activity and the world where it plays an important role in, is only possible through cooperation, mutual respect and free business and personal/individual information exchange.  

How has the packaging industry been coming together?
More than 500 companies worldwide have meanwhile joined NVC since its foundation in 1953. EPIC was founded in 2022, with NVC amongst the founding member institutes. We have been meeting regularly, mostly two times a year, since that moment. NVC as association and EPIC as ‘group’ are also members of the World Packaging Organisation WPO. Personally as NVC director, I am also a Board Member of the WPO.  

How will the military actions of Russia in the Ukraine impact the packaging industry?
If these actions are not resisted, intolerance between the packaging institutes will grow and the information exchange between the institutes will dry up. Worst case, any search for truth and/or reliable insights in the packaging industry and business as a whole will disappear. Adequate education and training will follow. We will be unboxing a terrifying situation.  

What more can be done?
This does not only affect the packaging institutes, but also the publishers of packaging related information, the organisers of exhibitions and conferences and the education and training institutes. All should speak out and support disseminate the EPIC Call for Action, possibly augmenting these activities with their own Call for Action.  

Editorial Contact:
Editor: Kiran Grewal kgrewal@kennedys.co.uk