In the last couple of years, we have spent a lot of time unpacking sustainability as it relates to packaging- recent innovations, external challenges, product specific considerations, the list goes on…
And we continue to approach the subject knowing that it means a lot of different things for different people. It was the guiding principle of our sustainable films webinar in September, a pillar of our paper packaging guide and it continues to be top of mind in the conversations we have with both food and non-food producers here across the continent.
There’s a lot to talk about and sometimes it can get complicated. We don’t say this to muddy the waters for producers or discourage anyone making these decisions. Quite the opposite.
With so many options and innovations, it becomes an individual journey depending on your product type, market and state of the industry as a whole. Like most things, with every opportunity (and there’s a lot of them) comes considerations.
You can talk about recyclable films but what about the current challenges around recyclability, particularly in our slice of the world?
You can talk about renewable films like paper, but only for products that fit the profile.
At the end of the day, it’s about making the best educated decisions based on your knowledge of your products, and for us it’s important to stick to our consultative approach and continue to talk openly about what options are out there, what product segments could be a good fit and which ones frankly aren’t.
Sometimes what is missed in these big sustainability conversations are the simple things, little steps that can make a huge long term environmental impact, like prolonging your shelf life, switching from heavy rigid packaging materials to flexible packaging or the topic we are covering today, how to use less of the packaging type you’re already using.
In case you didn’t know, a lot of R&D work goes on behind the scenes between packaging material vendors and packaging machinery vendors. The machinery companies at the forefront of technological advances are leaning on material vendor partners to help them test and refine new innovations, and vice versa.
The packaging industry often feels like a small world and it’s the “all hands on deck” mentality that continues to drive new opportunities to help our customers use thinner films, smaller seals, different materials and overall use less packaging to get more product to the market.
If you are looking to hit some sustainable packaging goals in 2021, a great place to start is by auditing your packaging material usage. Not only will this help lower the carbon footprint per item but it often generates the added bonus of significant cost savings for producers as well.
For flexible packaging, we recommend looking at the following categories.
Auditing the Gauge: Using thinner films
The easiest place to start is by looking at the thickness of the film you are currently using. We say easiest because typically this won’t require any artwork changes unless you need to source the film from a different supplier (but usually the conversion changes to any eye marks or color correction are at little to no cost to the producer.)
It’s imperative that the first priority of flexible packaging (okay, all packaging) is product protection. Often, using thinner films isn’t as simple as just down gauging the exact same packaging material you’re already using. This switch would likely be the simplest but you’ll have to make sure that you haven’t crossed a threshold for the minimum barrier property and overall degradation protection for your products. This could be an option for some folks.
What we really mean when we recommend thinner films is utilizing new film technology that offers the same barrier properties, strength and stiffness as your current package, but at often 20-30% thinner material. A quick search of “thinner flexible packaging films” will demonstrate that this capability has been top of mind for suppliers for decades and your current supplier may have an option available to you. If not, finding other options for thinner packaging material has become pretty easy thanks to big sustainability demands from the market.
Auditing the Width: Minimizing Vertical Seal Width
The second place to look for film usage inefficiencies is in your web width, and specifically in the seal area.
In the past, to give producers some margin in their film tracking, in case the film ever ran off-center, their film was produced with a slightly larger web width. This works well to prevent seal integrity issues but this creates excess material in the fin seal. With modern automatic film tracking capabilities, the film web of pouch packaging can be better dialed in.
This also comes with the added benefit of greater and more consistent visibility on the back or side of your packages- which if you’re in sales or marketing might be a big deal.
In Rovema’s case, our automatic film tracking solution allows us to move the entire film carriage to instantly correct any incremental film misalignment. Current capabilities in vertical sealing have also allowed us to reduce the width needed to create the actual vertical seal as well.
Basically for most products (mostly excluding liquid applications) only a 10-15mm wide fin seal is needed to securely seal the package with a Rovema bagger.
Auditing the Length: Minimizing headspace and shortening cutoff
Thirdly, it’s time to evaluate the length of your package. Outside of just the film cost savings, capabilities that drive out inefficiencies in your headspace actually impact another big expense line item- freight.
Unless your stand up pouch has a one way valve or is made of a breathable paper film, once you seal those packages, however much air is trapped in your bag is what you are going to pay to ship. Unless you’re weighing out instead of cubing out your freight loads, which is unlikely, you’re paying to ship empty space.
Some air left in the package is occasionally preferred, if you’re packaging chips or any extremely fragile product that needs to be protected from breakage, but it’s pretty common for consumers to feel like they “bought a few chips with their bag of air”.
Some questions to really dial in are: “How much cushion do I need in my package, if any?” and “How do I get the rest of the air out?” The first question will obviously vary based on the needs of your products and will be for you, as the producer, to determine.
As for the second question, by using a continuous motion vffs machine with servo driven jaws that allow a product stripping motion before sealing is an excellent way to minimize the head space of your package. In layman’s terms, the jaws move down the slightly opened bag, to compact the product, pushing out excessive air before sealing.
Auditing the Features: Peg holes or carry handles
The final category worth looking into, is more nuanced and will require market research to justify, but the payoff can be astounding!
How many times have you walked into a gas station and noticed pouches in shelf or retail ready packages, but also noticed that the pouches in the cartons had peg holes? (Maybe you’re not crazy like us, but if you think about it next time you take a road trip pit stop, you’ll see what we mean.)
The amount of film needed to be able to punch these euro or peg holes is often a half an inch or more, which is a lot of real estate when you consider the size of these packs. We get that the added merchandising flexibility to your retailers may help you sell more of your products, but due to the amount to time it takes to individually peg items, c-stores and larger retailers are replacing peg displays with more shelves.
It's very efficient to just tear off the top and place the retail ready carton up the shelf.
By doing some research (maybe a small scale test with this feature eliminated) you may prove that you've been wasting that bit of film that could account for a significant % of film for these items.
The same goes for some other cool package features as well, which pains us to say as a machine builder that loves to talk about bag styles, but how much sales benefit are you getting out the film you’re using to create that carry handle? Food for thought...
At the end of the day, using resources as responsibly as you can to get your product to the market successfully is the name of the game for a successful sustainability journey. When we talked about the current capabilities of the sustainable film industry on our webinar with Südpack, they said that the last 24 months have resulted in the fastest growth and innovation in the sustainable film space that they’ve ever seen.
While capabilities like fully recyclable multilayer films are among those cool advancements, just the group effort of figuring out how to make film stronger and thinner and as VFFS machine builders, innovate to seal them stronger and more efficiently is really paying off for producers, consumers and the environment.
Rovema has several resources that, depending on your product type, can help you evaluate additional sustainability options. I've added some of those links below. Of course, if you have any specific questions based on your product type, you can always connect with us in the chat box over here 👉👉 or reach us via our contact page.