“May you live in interesting times. The Chinese saying that seems encouraging at first glance belies an undercurrent of uncertainty and challenges is more relevant today than ever.
This proverb came to my mind during an ExxonMobil webinar earlier this month titled “Future Trends in the Flexible Packaging Industry”, which focused on design for recyclability. Presenter Glenn Williams, the company’s head of primary packaging development, said, “We are living in an exciting time for the flexible polyethylene packaging industry, with increasing innovation, collaboration and complexities. “
He unpacked the topic noting the gains and gaps by first identifying four mega trends affecting this market:
- The growth of emerging economies;
- Sustainability, in particular the move away from single-use plastic;
- New purchasing behaviors and expectations; and
- Emerging technologies, including Industry 4.0, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data.
“AI is important in recycling through digital watermarks,” he said.
Flexible packaging is on the rise in rapidly accelerating e-commerce markets, driven by a move towards greater packaging convenience.
At the heart of the growth of flexible packaging is the increasing middle class, especially in fast-growing countries like China, he noted.
Focusing on the US and Canadian markets, he pointed out that the overall driver of sustainability in the hose market is gauge reduction. Related trends including increased post-recycling content (PCR), design for recyclability and advanced recycling.
ExxonMobil has completed the initial phase of a factory trial at the company’s Baytown, TX facility using a proprietary advanced recycling process to convert waste plastics into raw materials for the production of high-value polymers. According to Williams, “this aims for a circular solution for hard-to-recycle materials” in the industrial, agricultural and construction markets.
Circularity for ExxonMobil means circular polymers ISCC + which have been certified by the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification Plus (ISCC +) process. The company plans to market certified polymers from advanced plastic waste recycling later this year.
ExxonMobil intends to use the results of the Baytown trial to expand advanced recycling capabilities at other global facilities, targeting a circular solution to convert hard-to-recycle plastic waste into raw material for virgin plastic quality.
Filling the performance “gaps” in recyclable hoses.
According to Williams, the direction of the development of flexible packaging is towards single-material formats where all or most of the structure is made of polyethylene (PE). Williams sees “great growth” in biaxially oriented PE (BOPE) and machine direction oriented PE (MDOPE), which offers “exceptional optical performance.”
A major challenge is sealing these materials on vertical form-fill-seal machines due to thermal distortion, so the machines have to run at lower speeds, especially when adding nozzles to the pouches. .
Another challenge is to increase the oxygen barriers where ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) is in a leading position.
Additionally, ExxonMobil is “working hard” to reduce polyamide (PA, aka nylon) in films, he reported. To date, PA in flexible packaging can be reduced by up to 30% while increasing puncture resistance. The next step is to replace the PA, a “significant” challenge that includes the combination of current barriers or the use of new polymers.
During the pandemic, Williams saw a lot of rationalization of storage units. Still, amid the reduction, a study that showed 8% growth for upright pouches, he added. And as institutional food packaging shrank, e-commerce accelerated – an astonishing 40% growth in 2020, he noted. E-commerce has also seen an increase in direct-to-consumer delivery (DTC) and own container shipping (SIOC) designs which Williams says are driving plastic and flexible alternatives.
He also highlighted an increase in bag-in-box (BIB) and refill pouches that align with the trend away from single-use plastics.
In conclusion, Williams said that “hoses with the right design and the right materials are in a good position for growth.”