Market analysis from Smithers shows worldwide consumption of flexible packaging will reach 31.5 million tonnes in 2021 following a -5.5% drop in overall value in 2020.

The research, published in The Future of Global Flexible Packaging to 2026 , shows flexible plastic, paper and foil packaging will continue to see a steady rise in demand across the next five years, even as the industry simultaneously reacts to the supply chain disruption of Covid-19 and the ongoing demand for greater sustainability in pack designs.

Industrial formats, which represent slightly over half of the market, have been affected more than consumer packaging applications. Smithers forecasts that demand will return through 2021 as lockdown (shelter-in-place) orders are lifted and international trade flows resume. Flexible packaging will benefit directly from this, and Smithers forecasts a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.4%, by volume. This will see total consumption reach 37.5 million tonnes in 2026.

According to the report, overall the impact of a post-Covid recession will vary from country to country. Their duration will depend on the success of national virus control and vaccination programmes, as well as the effectiveness of government stimulus spending. Food packaging has previously shown itself resilient in times of economic downturn, and this represents around 75% of all flexible packaging demand. Luxury goods will be much more badly affected, but these make limited use of flexibles; and moves to control the virus will also support wider demand for medical devices and pharmaceuticals.

The recovery has already begun, in China and elsewhere in Asia. These regions represent the largest growth opportunities for flexible packaging suppliers through to 2026.  

Flexible plastics (BOPP, CPP, BOPA, BOPET, PE, PVC, EVOH, RCF) will remain the largest segment of the market and will see the fastest growth. These have come under scrutiny as governments and consumers show a greater interest in the environmental impact of packaging. Flexible polymer constructions – especially multi-layer laminates – have been identified as among the hardest formats to recycle efficiently. In response material suppliers and converters are introducing more monomaterial packs designed to be recovered in existing waste streams. This is driving R&D on delivering performance characteristics previously only possible with multilayer constructions, such as improving high-speed heal sealing, withstanding retort cooking, and home ovenable pouches. 

In parallel the industry is investigating how to use more recycled post-consumer resin in polymer packaging films; in particular, the wider use of feedstocks sourced from the first generation of chemical recycling processes.

In retail packaging there is also more interest in flexible paper concepts, including new barrier concepts and designs. These are allowing brands to demonstrate their green credentials to customers. 

While maintaining production and safety during Covid-19 was the top priority for 2020, sustainability has not disappeared from the medium-term agenda. Many FMCG companies are maintaining corporate citizenship commitments to improve the sustainability of their packaging by 2025 or 2030; and many state government recovery strategies are looking to match spending to projects that minimise environmental impact. Elements of these have the potential to benefit flexible packaging, especially those focussed on minimising food waste – where the ambient barrier performance of the latest flexibles can be a key tool to minimise spoilage of perishable foods in transit.

The Future of Global Flexible Packaging to 2026 quantifies the market (by value and volume) for ten different flexible packaging materials across 2016-2026. Market data is presented in unparalleled detail, segmented across 19 end-use applications, and over 20 regional and leading national markets.