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We are living through a dramatic sea change in packaging. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation and associated environmental concerns are catalyzing significant steps to close the gaps to create a truly circular economy for all primary and secondary packaging for consumer packaged goods (CPGs). And as our packaging landscape changes, with state legislators making waves through newly erected legal boundaries and structures, significant levels of innovation in flexible packaging are following in its wake.

EPR is a legislative policy approach that assigns end-of-life responsibility to “producers” of CPGs. EPR legislation generally addresses single-use plastic packaging, with some rulemaking including guidelines for other materials like paper, metal, and glass. As noted in our recent “2024 State of Converting” report, four U.S. states — California, Oregon, Colorado, and Maine — have passed EPR legislation. In late May, the Minnesota legislature passed its EPR rules, and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz shortly thereafter signed the initiative into law. Other states — including Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — will likely finalize and implement EPR legislation before the end of 2024.

Flexible packaging already offers significant environmental benefits to CPG brand owners and producers — and subsequently to the world. According to the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), “From its fossil fuel and water usage, to its carbon impact and product-to-package ratio, flexible packaging's efficiency is environmentally effective” (FPA, “Sustainable Packaging”). As FPA notes, key sustainability benefits of flexible packaging include:

  • Material and resource efficiency
  • Transportation benefits
  • High product-to-package ratio
  • Product protection
  • Source reduction

Suppliers across the packaging industry continue to develop solutions to maximize the benefits CPG brand owners and other producers have come to expect from flexible packaging — but now with a keen eye on the circular-economy demands aligning with curbside and fast-emerging advanced recycling efforts.

At the recent 2024 Global Pouch Forum, an event supported by The Packaging Group from BNP Media, advances in flexible packaging sustainability offered highlights across the agenda, including sessions on:

  • Considerations for widely recyclable pouches
  • Sustainable, highly functional multilayer films
  • High-barrier, recyclable mono-material laminates
  • Testing sustainable pouch performance

As the global CPG industry continues to face economic, legislative, and environmental hurdles, flexible packaging will continue to innovate to provide actionable solutions.

Effective EPR Legislation

As part of our 2024 “State of Flexible Packaging” outreach to the industry, The Packaging Group from BNP Media sought input from leading converters to gain perspective on the current EPR legislative climate.

How should the packaging and CPG industry, in tandem with legislators, approach creation of reasonable solutions related to extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation?

Brian Carvill, Ph.D., VP Research & Development, Amcor Flexibles North America

Brian Carvill, PhD

“We believe that a well-built EPR scheme can generate the funding necessary to create the infrastructure for recycling. We’ve worked together with many of our partners in the value stream, and the Consumer Goods Forum, to recommend features of an optimal EPR program (see Consumer Goods Forum, “Building a Circular Economy for Packaging”). There are a few critical elements: All major CPG packaging materials should be collected in the program. The programs should operate on a ‘net cost basis,’ with each material paying its own way based on the value it provides as an output of the stream. And the revenue raised by the fees should stay inside the system. These funds are critical to improving the infrastructure required and should not be drained off to support other legislative priorities.”

— Brian Carvill, Ph.D., VP Research & Development, Amcor Flexibles North America

Challenges and Opportunities

In early 2024, The Packaging Group from BNP Media and Clear Seas Research conducted an original industry survey to identify key indicators affecting flexible packaging today. As part of its outreach to the industry for this report, Clear Seas Research asked respondents about the market for new equipment, top challenges facing the industry, and emerging market opportunities.

According to the Clear Seas Research findings, among respondents who plan to switch to flexible packaging over the next year:

  • Nearly two-thirds of respondents report that their companies plan to switch to flexible plastic packaging.
  • More than half indicate that their companies plan to switch to flexible paper packaging and/or flexible foil packaging.

Additionally, according to Clear Seas Research, this switch to flexible packaging often includes an investment in equipment, with research results determining that:

  • Over two-thirds of respondents currently looking to purchase flexible packaging equipment plan to purchase horizontal or vertical form/fill/seal or fill/seal equipment.
  • Over two-in-five respondents are looking to purchase pouch-making equipment.

The switch to flexible packaging — and often new equipment to run those packaging materials — comes with perhaps the top challenge in the industry today: price. Research findings determined that three-quarters of respondents rank the cost of new packaging materials and associated equipment as the most-important issue facing flexible packaging today. Facets related to the supply chain also continue to rank high on the list of challenges facing the industry.

What are the top issues facing flexible packaging converters today?

Chad Perre, VP of Technology, Pregis Performance Flexibles

Chad Perre

“It’s a really exciting time within the flexible packaging space for resin suppliers, film manufacturers, and converters alike. Sustainability in particular is truly impacting every flexible packaging application (pouches, bags, shrink, etc.). Over the past few years — and looking ahead — downgauging, mono-material structures, and post-consumer recycled content are the common levers being tackled by the industry. Every customer opportunity comes with its own set of unique variables. Film development, converting, and sales approaches now largely hinge upon one question: What sustainability levers do I pull, and how much do I pull them without compromising the performance and converting needs of the end product? While the market is still navigating sustainability, every stakeholder is getting better at making strategic, calculated decisions that ultimately yield highly effective, yet sustainable, packaging solutions.”

— Chad Perre, VP of Technology, Pregis Performance Flexibles

Use of flexible packaging in the medical and pharmaceutical products market also continues to grow, presenting its own share of distinct challenges.

Dave Grenwis, Marketing Manager, Delta ModTech

Dave Grenwis

“The packaging and pouching applications we see most often are in regulated industries, typically medical and pharmaceutical. The challenges our customers see in these areas are often in the pre-packaging phase of their manufacturing process. For example, converted parts commonly require inspection for product conformity, as well as package conformity. To increase throughput, we often use a single-pass manufacturing process to convert, inspect, and pouch these products inline. This methodology allows for a closed loop system that provides higher yields with less waste. The cost of materials continues to rise and has led to much-tighter tolerances in part-to-pouch placement, resulting in less allowance of unsealed area around the part.”

— Dave Grenwis, Marketing Manager, Delta ModTech

Clear Seas Research results found food is the most-challenging market for flexible packaging today, followed by beverages and household products, with the combined categories of health, beauty, and personal care deemed challenging as well.

Which CPG product categories pose the most challenges to your converting and packaging work today and why?

Chad Perre, VP of Technology, Pregis Performance Flexibles

Chad Perre

“All categories really come with their own unique set of challenges. I wouldn’t necessarily weigh one category over another. As the rigid-to-flexibles trend continues to gain steam (due to cost savings and sustainability needs), we’re going to see more diversity in applications (i.e., beverage pouches vs. cans or bottles), and in turn, more-complex requirements. It then becomes the job of resin suppliers, film manufacturers, and converters to design/construct pouches and bags that adhere to the requirements of the unique product at hand. In the instance of a beverage being housed in a pouch, packaging must possess the high durability/stiffness, and the seal strength and puncture resistance to successfully contain the liquid. High-barrier properties within the film will be key, too, to effectively manage oxygen and moisture transmission rates. All that said, it will be increasingly important for all packaging stakeholders — from resin to converting — to possess and/or invest in extensive R&D resources and talent to effectively build these custom solutions.”

— Chad Perre, VP of Technology, Pregis Performance Flexibles

Today’s top challenges often lead to tomorrow’s newest opportunities. While food presents the top challenge to flexible packaging today, Clear Seas Research found that food ranks as the most-promising CPG market opportunity, with respondents ranking health, beauty, and personal care as the second most-promising market, and beverages coming in third.

Which CPG product categories pose the most promising market opportunities today from a packaging perspective and why?

Brian Carvill, Ph.D., VP Research & Development, Amcor Flexibles North America

Brian Carvill, PhD

“The role of flexible packaging has never been more important. Flexible packaging is lightweight, provides protection for the contents of the package, and acts as a canvas to communicate with consumers. Optimizing the product to package ratio gets closer to the industry’s and consumers’ sustainability goals. The end of life for packages also impacts sustainability metrics. This will require investment and collaboration between local governments and waste management institutions.”

— Brian Carvill, Ph.D., VP Research & Development, Amcor Flexibles North America

Chad Perre, VP of Technology, Pregis Performance Flexibles

Chad Perre

“The food space comprises the largest portion of the flexible packaging market, and growth is projected to remain strong in coming years, according to the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA). Pouches and bags, in particular, are being utilized for more and more food and beverage applications, and will drive businesses to think even more creatively during the design and converting process.”

— Chad Perre, VP of Technology, Pregis Performance Flexibles

For comprehensive, ongoing coverage of top issues facing flexible packaging, visit