The History, Status, and Future of Flexible Food Packaging

    Flexible food packaging technology is exploding with new manufacturing ideas and better results for consumers. Sustainability, cost, appearance and convenience goals are merging like never before. And everyone in the chain from beginning to end is experiencing more manageable expenses, better quality and performance, and less waste.

    It's a global effort that's paying off. Now, flexible packaging provides more than just a lightweight product container. It offers beautiful branding options, better product freshness, improved consumer convenience, and less debris hauled to local landfills. What's in store for the future? Smart materials that respond to the environment.

    Flexible Packaging Took Root Centuries Ago

    The historical, evolutionary curve of flexible packaging looks a bit like this:

    • Treated tree bark
    • Paper bags
    • Semi-flexible cardboard
    • Corrugated cardboard
    • Plastics

    Lightweight, flexible packaging materials didn't emerge with the invention of plastic kitchen bags or even paper grocery sacks. In 1300s China, the bark of the mulberry tree provided flexible food packaging, according to the University of Florida IFAS Extension's A Brief History of Packaging.

    Paper making technology advanced flexible packaging options. And in the mid-1800s, paper bag manufacturing took off first in England, then in the U.S. with the first machine-made bags.

    Innovation Drives Flexible Packaging Today

    Today's flexible packaging technology supports ecological, branding and sustainability efforts:

    • Better flexographic printing seamlessly combines packaging and graphics
    • Smart packaging design gives food manufacturers a contemporary edge
    • High SKU lines adapt faster to new products
    • Pouch packaging takes products from shelf or freezer to table
    • Less packaging produces less waste

    According to Food Processing magazine, flexible packaging is a clear leader that's just beginning to tap into its possibilities. Advances in flexographic printing for retort pouches, developed in Switzerland, circumvent the expense of rotogravure printing, with virtually indistinguishable results.

    Design flexibility allows manufacturers to experiment with packaging structure, as well. Consumers can pinch, pull, tear, shake and eat from the same container. Heated containers now cool faster while keeping food warm. For high SKU brands, new product additions and existing changes are seamless.

    Edible containers, such as whey film, get mixed reviews, according to research by Erin Hoppe of the University of Wisconsin-Stout. But they could one day eliminate packaging waste altogether. One primary concern is hygiene. But there is promise. Watch as Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez, co-founder and co-CEO of Skipping Rocks Lab, demonstrates "Ooho" the edible water bottle:

    Tomorrow's Choices are Healthier, Stronger and Better Looking

    What might happen in tomorrow's flexible packaging?

    • Smaller, thinner, lighter packaging with better labeling
    • "Intelligent" flexible materials that respond to conditions inside or outside the package
    • Polymers become immune to microbes
    • Antimicrobial films control microorganisms in food
    • Smart, conductive, light-emitting packaging produces advertisements on the package
    • Higher biodegradability and compostability

    Hope explains that "intelligent" packaging can already use sensors, indicators, and processors to detect changes in and around packaging and react to them. In the future, that technology is expected to grow. Polymers that control microorganisms will further reduce food waste. And with a higher level of biodegradability, manufacturers can double down on reducing waste.

    According to Beverage Daily, the trends are moving to a less-is-more philosophy. And that means lighter weight, slimmer, flexible packaging that's highly recyclable/biodegradable/compostable.

    Flexible packaging offers flexible solutions for manufacturers, food processors and ultimately consumers. It keeps costs low with better-looking containers that out-perform traditional packaging on all fronts.

    With cutting-edge industry innovation, the future will hold smarter products that work hard not just to contain, but also enhance the product while eliminating bulk and waste.

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