By Smithers Pira

The global market for flexible packaging is forecast to grow at an annual average rate of 3.4 percent over the next five years, and is expected to reach $248 billion by 2020. This dynamic packaging sector offers huge potential for technology suppliers, packaging converters and brand owners.

Flexible packaging is the most economical method to package, preserve and distribute food, beverages, other consumables, pharmaceuticals and other products that need extended shelf life. It can be designed with barrier properties tailored to fit the products being packaged and their end uses, whereas other barrier packaging formats generally provide a one-size-fits-all approach. Flexible packaging can be made in a wide variety of innovative shapes, sizes and appearances, and can include components such as handles, and opening and reclosing features such as zips and spouts.

In this bulletin, Smithers Pira draws on its most recent market data ( to identify the four key trends driving the market for flexible packaging.


Flexible packaging uses fewer resources and less energy than other forms of packaging. It provides significant reductions in packaging costs, materials use and transport costs as well as certain performance advantages over rigid packaging. Use of flexible packaging can minimize package transport costs between the converter, packer/filler, retailer and end user. It not only takes up less space when empty than rigid packaging, but can also be constructed on the spot from roll materials at the filling location, thereby minimizing transportation of ready-formed empty packaging.

A key trend for flexible plastic packaging is continued downgauging as the combination of environmental pressures and high polymer prices make customers demand even thinner films.

This downgauging of plastic films will continue even though many of the traditional films are reaching the limits of this trend. The flexible packaging industry will begin to promote more of the “pre-cycling” benefits of these packages versus rigids as the combination of environmental pressures and uncertain polymer prices persist. No declines for paper and aluminium foil are forecast as demand for them reached the bottom line in many regions

High-performance films  

At the other end of the spectrum to thinner films is the rise and importance of high-performance films. The trend in food packaging films is toward high-performance film structures that are less permeable to increase shelf life and enhance flavours. Growth is occurring from the transition of items packaged in rigid containers to high-quality flexible packages. Non-food packaging applications are industrial and agricultural.

A growing share of premium products — including products sold in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) — is also favourable for flexible packaging in baked goods. Some of these products are gluten-free bread; breakfast goods such as croissants, pancakes, partly baked bread and rolls; specialty bread; and cakes.

Two other favorable trends are increased pressure from retailers to extend shelf life, and a shift in foodservice sandwich bread from frozen to MAP-packaged bread.

The ongoing success of flexible packaging as a replacement for glass and metal packages, particularly retorted and hot-filled products, can be attributed directly to the substantial improvements in barrier properties of plastic films and clear plastic films in particular.

One of the advantages of flexible packaging is the ability of the brand owner to “dial in” the barrier based on product and shelf life requirements. With glass and metal packaging, very high barriers are incorporated despite whether they are needed. For example, packaging refrigerated milk in a glass container is unnecessary to maintain product shelf life. Milk oxidizes very slowly at refrigerated temperatures and therefore does not require a barrier package at all.

The other extreme would be wine, which — even at refrigerated temperatures — reacts with oxygen very quickly and is suitable for a glass container. Flexible packaging can be easily designed for both types of products and all levels of moisture and oxygen barrier needs in both clear and opaque formats. For the most part, barrier flexible packaging for retail products is a lamination of several plies of plastic, so the level of barrier necessary can be accomplished through one or more of the plies.

Consumer convenience

As more and more consumers lead increasingly busy and hectic lifestyles, they do not have the time to cook meals from scratch, opting for convenient mealtime solutions instead. This puts ready meals in new flexible packaging formats in a prime position to take advantage of current social and economic trends.

Packaged fresh meat, fish and poultry consumption will grow at a faster rate than unpackaged produce to 2020. This trend is explained by consumer demand for more convenient solutions and the growing dominance of the large supermarkets where packaged foods provide longer shelf life.

Chilled food consumption has grown steadily over last decade, driven by increasing numbers in supermarkets and hypermarkets, especially in developing markets, and consumer demand for convenience products that are precooked, pre-roasted or pre-sliced. Growth in the pre-sliced sector and in premium lines has promoted growing demand for MAP packaging. Demand for chilled food is also being driven by a greater variety of ready meals, fresh pasta, seafood and exotic meats, and a trend toward more convenience food purchases by time-conscious consumers

Bio-derived and bio-degradable technologies

In the past few years, a number of new product launches involving bio-based plastic packaging have taken place. The proliferation of bio-based plastic films continues with polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) and poly-trimethylene terephthalate (PTMT) showing the most promise on the truly materials side of the equation, and thermoplastic starch (TPS) films on the petroleum replacement side.  NP


This research is based on Smithers Pira’s report The Future of Global Flexible Packaging to 2020. This report is available for purchase now and is essential reading for anyone involved in the flexible packaging market. Visit for more information.