Editors Note: This blog was originally published in March of 2017 but has been edited and republished with new data around this topic.
It's no secret that one of the biggest trends in the packaging industry has been moving from rigid to flexible packaging. Walking through the grocery store a year ago (much less 10 years ago) provides a completely different view today that has nothing to do with product - it's the package!
For a more microscopic inspection, what does this trend mean for stand up pouch or pillow bag vs. metal cans or glass jars? How does switching packaging methods benefit both consumers and manufacturers?
In February of 2016, the Fredonia Group estimated in study #3383 that by 2020 the demand for pouches would grow 4.4% to 10.1 billion in the US. The metal can market, however, was expected to experience a slower growth of 2%. While 4.4% is an impressive CAGR, the actual popularity of stand up pouches from 2016 to 2020 blew past those estimations. According to this report from February of 2021, the stand up pouch market in North America is projected to exhibit a CAGR of more than 6% between now and 2027.
The CAGR of flexible packaging continues to greatly outpace that of rigid packaging options.
Whether it is switching a #10 can of soup or sauce to a pillow bag made by a liquid bagger or converting a can of nuts into stand up pouches made by a stand up pouch packaging machine, the appeal is becoming more prevalent. Before we dive into the five major reasons producers are switching to flexible packaging vs rigid packaging, let's walk through the difference between the two.
What Is Flexible Packaging?
Flexible packaging is made up of materials that are easily manipulated - whether empty or filled. These materials, typically referred to as films, can be made from a growing variety of different substrates such as low density plastics, papers, metals, and often combinations of the three.
Flexible packaging is very lightweight while still often very durable, able to withstand jostling and any temperature or pressure changes that come with long-distance transportation.
What Is Rigid Packaging?
Rigid packaging is as its name also describes as not easily manipulated and often irreparable if the packaging yields if dropped or experiences a drastic change in temperature or pressure.
Rigid Packaging is often made of rigid plastics like high-density polyethylene or from coated metals or glass. Metal cans or rigid plastic containers are much lighter weight compared to glass jars but are still several times heavier than flexible packages from the same amount of product.
What do we ask of packaging?
At the end of the day, the most important thing that we ask of packaging, regardless of if it's flexible vs rigid packaging, is to protect our products. In the past, rigid packaging was necessary to adequately protect some types of products, like sauces, soups, or other liquid products.
But as film and packaging machinery technology has improved, this is no longer the case. And there are several reasons why the switch to flexible packaging is greatly improving the efficiency and consumer experience of many product categories:
1. Waste reduction
Waste reduction is a top priority in most companies. It saves on cost, is better for the environment, and it has a positive impact on the economy. When it comes to sustainable packaging, the pouch stands out significantly in the area of waste reduction. In a recent Fres-co study comparing the #10 can of tomato paste to a pouch, it was determined that there was an 85% reduction of waste with primary packaging after switching from the can to the pouch. Just imagine if that had been compared to a glass jar as well... Pretty impressive.
The cost savings do not end there. Waste reduction spills over into other areas when there is a transition to a pillow bag or stand-up pouch. We see this decreased waste with fuel, start-up, landfill, and space. Speaking of space, this leads us to the second reason it can make more sense to use flexible packaging instead of a can or jar.
To give you an idea of the amount of space that can be saved, Liquiflex informs us that 98 pallets of cans is equal to 1 pallet of film. Storage space is a constant issue with warehouses and manufacturing plants. Can you imagine providing this solution to your team who is stressed because lack of space prevents them from completing goals, starting on production, or ordering material they need?
The consumer also benefits from this space-savings. The flexibility of the pouch and lighter weight allows more of the packaged product to be stored in the desired location.
3. A Friend to the Environment
We are becoming more aware of the environment and concerned about the impact we have on this world. We not only want to be more environmentally conscientious, but we are also increasingly required by the government to include environmentally friendly policies in our programs. Because the can is recyclable, it is a common misconception that it is the green way to go. This is simply not the case. Waste reduction causes the pouch to be more environmentally friendly. The Fres-co case study informs us that:
"Assuming that cans are recycled at a rate of 62%, laminate pouches are recycled at a rate of 0%, and the secondary package in this case is recycled at 70%; there is a total packaging material reduction of 40%, or 4,689 lbs of packaging per 100,000 lbs of product. As a result, the weight of packaging sent to landfill gets reduced by 27%.....despite the recycling rates, the pouch is so much lighter than the can, that the latter cannot offset the significant source reduction of the former."
4. Healthier Option
As we age, healthy eating becomes more and more of a priority. Millenials are reaching their prime spending years, as they build careers and families. According to Bruce Horowitz of USA today, the younger generations are more concerned about eating organic, preservatives in food, and ingredients. So concerned, in fact, that they are willing to spend more money on eating healthier.
Health issues with use of the metal #10 can is mostly focused on the use of BPA (Bisphenol A). The Mayo Clinic explains that BPA has been linked to a variety of negative health effects. They actually recommend avoiding canned foods! As a result of health issues, many companies, like Campbell Soup are moving away from BPA lined cans. Many, however, are still manufacturing with BPA and the consumer may have no way of knowing if the metal can contains BPA or not.
This chemical is not the only concern. The thin layer used to line the cans can still be compromised, especially with acidic food. This may cause leakage of the tin or aluminum into the food. Contamination could lead to gastrointestinal and neurological health problems. And let's not forget that once the can is open, it's even more possible for the metal to leak into the food.
Health and food blogs and articles such as those written by Anne's Healthy Kitchen, Women's Health, and many more also espouse the idea of avoiding food in metal cans. Word is getting around and to make an impact, we need to listen to what is being spread by and to consumers as well as noting the lifestyle habits of the Millennials and Generation Z and incorporate it into our packaging.
5. Longevity of shelf life
From time to time my mind fills with the idea of a meteoric or apocalyptic event that could happen. Usually after reading a book or watching a movie with this theme. There are many reasons to want to buy food with a longer shelf life but fear of an apocalypse does it for me. So how does a pouch fare next to a can when comparing life cycle?
A common myth is that the can offers a longer shelf life then the pouch. Not true. The shelf life of food in a can is typically 2-5 year (less for some products) according to Brian A. Nummer, PhD and Brandon Jahner. This is not because the food will spoil, but because the metal is more likely to transfer into the food after this date. The longest tested shelf life for packaging actually comes from a pouch. Think military MRE (Meal, Ready To Eat). This pouch has a shelf life of 8-10 years. Currently, no packaging solution is recommended for over that amount.
While metal cans are beneficial for some consumers and manufacturers, transferring from a metal container to a pouch as a solution to these important issues is not only viable, but it makes sense. And off the top of my head, I can think of a few other smaller issues it solves. The pillow bag or stand up pouches can be microwaveable - the can can't. (Catchy slogan!) The pouch can be frozen - not the can. For those world travelers, the pouch can be duty-free but not the can. What do you think? I'd love to know any other solutions you can come up with or your thoughts on this trend?