In a fast-paced world where convenience is currency, a continuing prominent trend in product packaging is the use of flexible plastic pouches. More consumers are choosing pouches over traditional glass, paper and metal packaging, and even rigid plastics, as global market demand is projected to rise 6.2% annually to $37.3 billion in 2018. Food is the largest and most developed market for pouch use due in great part to rising output and consumption rates worldwide. Pharma/medical and beverage are the second and third largest markets, respectively.
Japan is a country that has long been ahead of the pouch packaging trend, as urbanization and a fast-paced lifestyle keep space and time at a premium in Japanese cities. The heat-resistant boil-in-a-bag (later microwavable) food delivery model addressed lifestyle needs of Japanese consumers as far back as in the 1970s, when more women were entering the workforce and convenience was compulsory. Today, Japanese pouch-meals and pre-cut single-serving vegetables and meats respond to Japan’s aging population of elders who live alone (27% are 65 or older), pioneering innovation in the consumer retail experience.
Here in the U.S., consumer lifestyle trends demand increasingly convenience and portability of product, particularly in the food sector. Ease of use at home and on the go have become a requisite for driving the purchase of consumer foods. This is particularly true for Millennials, who represent about a fourth of the entire U.S. population with $200 billion in annual buying power; significantly, one in four Millennials are now parents, which not only compounds the demand for convenience, but their influence on future consumers (their children) and older generations (their parents). With less time to spare and more options than ever, consumers cite convenience as a consumer need that is increasingly addressed by the innovations offered by pouch packaging.
Advancements in seal and barrier technologies for the pouches market are keeping food fresher longer at all stages of the supply chain, contributing to a longer shelf life for both retailers and end-users. As quality and healthfulness of convenience food products continue to increase in significance, pouch technologies allow a greater variety of these foods to be available to more consumers, geographically and economically speaking. For example, the dairy market segment, which includes yogurt (a product very much in demand), is expected to grow significantly through 2020 with the aid of these high-barrier pouches.
The environmental implications of pouches in food packaging and other markets are significant. Pouches are smaller and thinner than glass, paper and metal packaging and will use 60% less plastic and be 23% lighter compared to traditional rigid packaging on average. Both the stand-up and flat variety of pouch generally have a higher product-to-package ratio than rigid packaging and require about half of the energy required to produce, cutting down on the CO2 emissions released during production and during transport; taking up less space means fewer trucks are needed, reducing fuel consumption and additional CO2 emissions.
While flexible plastic pouches reduce landfill waste because they are lighter, less bulky and take up less volume than conventional packaging, it is important to note that they are not recyclable through the current waste management infrastructure. The multi-layer films from which most pouches are comprised are often made up of several different plastics, which are difficult to recycle because these components they require separating. Further, contact with food, beverage, medical and industrial substances requires additional processing so as to not contaminate recycled plastic batches.
This is not to mention the numbers associated with the waste created by single-serving items. Pouches now feature handles, zippers, easy-tear and resealable openings, spouts, straws, spoons and caps to name just a few types of the closures and fitments that make consumer food products easier to transport and use with high functionality, but make them that much more difficult to recycle due to their component parts.
However, consumers do have free recycling options for their pouch waste. Companies solving for their pouch brand packaging through sponsored recycled programs with my company TerraCycle include GoGo squeeZ, GU Energy and Honest Kids, all of which make products with the on-the-go pouch configurations that are exemplars of the convenience and efficiency that pouches deliver.
Innovative, sustainable solutions for packaging consumer products, from sambar to soap, lie in inventing the most efficient, environmentally sound ways to accommodate the world’s changing lifestyles. Convenient, efficient and comparatively smaller in carbon foot print than some rigid packaging, pouches of all material compositions and shapes address consumer trends while moving in a good direction for waste reduction. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and pouches continue to push enhanced functionality and convenience in excitingly fresh ways.
Author Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, published a book called "Make Garbage Great" in July 2015 and is the star of the television show "Human Resources" on Pivot TV, now in its third season.