Flexible packaging solutions are becoming the formats of choice for an increasingly diverse range of products in foods, beverages, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. The leading trade body for the flexible packaging sector, Flexible Packaging Europe (FPE), explains the reasons for the dynamic rise of these packs and why it is set to continue for some time to come.

Europe is one of the largest markets, globally, for flexible packaging and the growth since the turn of the century has been spectacular, as more and more end users welcome these styles for the convenience and sustainable credentials they offer. Importantly flexible packaging can be utilised in consumer and professional applications for an ever-expanding range of products, including food and non-food packaging applications such as soup, juice, confectionery, pet food, tobacco, cosmetics and personal care, household detergents, as well as pharmaceutical and other medical products.

Market Size

A recent report, by Mordor Intelligence, says the European flexible packaging market is expected to grow from $28.22 billion in 2016 to $ 41 billion by the end of 2021 at a CAGR of 7.76%. This is above the global trend which is forecast to be +5.0% and about one third of the global market.  Germany is set to have the highest consumption, followed by the UK and Spain. 

These impressive numbers are evidence that flexible packaging is one fastest growing segments in the sector due to its versatility and because it meets many demands of both fillers and consumers. This robust growth can be attributed to the overall growth of packaging demand as well as retailers and producers opening up many more product lines. 

Due to larger vertical integration, the retailers have enjoyed more efficient distribution and logistics. This enables the flexible packaging market to grow at a steady pace to help the retail industry in the region, says the report.  

BOX: FPE’s Definition of Flexible Packaging

Flexible packaging is produced through adding value to a wide variety of substrate materials including plastic films, paper and aluminium foil – either separately or in combination – mainly for primary retail food packaging and non-food packaging applications such as pet food, tobacco, cosmetics and personal care, household detergents, and pharmaceutical and medical products. This specifically excludes shrink and stretch films used for secondary packaging, or transit and bulk packs, such as pallet hoods and pallet wrap, carrier bags, supermarket and self-service counter bags, silage bags, refuse and industrial sacks, etc. 


Increased demand for consumer-friendly products which are lightweight, convenient for on-the-go lifestyles and which are easily transportable, are major factors behind Europe’s high market share. The growing focus on sustainability, plus the increased need for extended shelf life, as well as rising standards of hygiene and ease of use are the principal drivers of this market.

With a huge variety of materials and laminates, flexible packaging is able to offer superior barrier capabilities and can effectively protect the product from moisture, oxygen and light. It is a combination of best properties of various materials: plastic films, paper and aluminium foil, to create a tailor-made solution with the minimum use of resources. 

In addition, the variety of formats is seemingly endless. It can be used as pouches, sachets, stick packs, wraps in many different (and an almost infinite number of) sizes – with or without easy opening. In the last decade, re-closable features have become popular and the capability to retort for some applications has given a big boost to flexible packs in the prepared food and juice markets. Developments in vacuum packaging technology have also added to the number of pack styles and their efficacy, for proteins and cheeses in particular.

Shelf Impact

The on-shelf impact can be very high, thanks to the excellent printability and, where appropriate, the pack can be made fully or partly transparent to improve the appeal of the product inside for the consumer. 

Recently some interesting formats have come on the market, for example drinks pouches in fun shapes and striking colours; packs that reflect the contents, like animal shapes or packs that mirror the origin of what is inside. Or the material is used creatively to mould around the product, such as chocolate eggs, to enhance and emphasise the contents.

Thanks to the use of combinations of materials, such as aluminium foil with a plastics film, the natural finish – shine or matt – can add significantly to the look of a pack. When combined with high quality printing across the entire pack, so not restricted to a label, this offers Brand Owners and retailers the maximum opportunity to make their product stand out.

Sustainable Champion

The rise of flexible packaging as a champion of sustainability can be attributed to two major factors: its barrier functionalities and light weight in comparison to rigid pack formats. To this can now be added its ‘end-of-life’ environmental impact.

1. Food Waste:

Food waste is top of the agenda in many European states, as it has become clear just how much food is lost along the supply chain and in the home. New barrier films are being developed all the time, offering advantages to both prepared and fresh products, for example films with an oxygen barrier or scavenging characteristics, or laser perforated bags produced to improve breathability.Flexible laminates can protect against light, air and moisture, or allow a controlled transmission of gases to extend shelf life, retard the ripening process and inhibit microbial growth.

But the flexible pack offers much more. It can be formatted in a size which is both convenient and suited to controlling portion sizes. So, consumers can buy exactly what they want to eat or drink without wasting the contents, or running the risk of food spoiling in a forgotten place in their bag or rucksack. And some re-closable options now exist too.

In the pharmaceutical sector the development of more volatile products such as bio-medicines has led to the need for easily transportable but robust pac kaging to deal with changes in environmental conditions and sometimes difficult storage situations without affecting the efficacy of the drugs. In particular, the aluminium foil sector has risen to this challenge and now offers a number of solutions offering strong moisture and light barriers, as well as designs incorporating dispensing and mixing options.

2. Logistics:

Sustainability is, of course, not just about the issue of food waste. The pack itself is an important element in the environmental value chain. How much energy does it consume in manufacture and transportation and how easy is it to dispose of effectively? Once again flexible packaging scores high marks. 

In an unfilled state, most formats can be transported on a reel or flat. So, the volume can be more than 20 times less than some glass or metal alternatives, meaning far less trucks and far less material by weight. Even rigid plastic containers, while stackable and lighter, can be 2 or three times the volume and five times the weight of flexible packaging.

Once filled the pack, as a ratio of the total weight, is far smaller, so again, the transportation costs to the warehouse or retailer will be considerably less. In addition, the energy used in pack production is also a much smaller percentage per item. Once in the store the space required on the shelf, or in the chiller, will be less. So, use of shelf space can be more efficient and energy used for temperature control is less than for bulkier pack styles.

3. Disposal: 

Effective disposal has become a critical factor for any form of packaging. High recycling rates are seen as good, while low rates are a big negative, which has been an issue for flexible packaging. 

Now, thanks to a more holistic view of environmental impact, initiated by the European Union’s policy of establishing a Circular Economy, flexible packaging has a far more robust place in the environmental hierarchy. 

FPE has initiated Lifecycle Analyses (LCAs) which prove beyond doubt the flexible pack has less environmental impact than its rigid equivalent. In one, rigid packs weighing 50g were replaced by a 5g flexible equivalent for the same volume of product. After use, 80% of the rigid packs were recycled, compared with 0% for the flexible packs. But, in the waste stream, this meant the rigid pack generated 10g of waste compared with only 5g for the flexible pack. 

However, the flexible sector is not complacent about this. It is actively engaged in developing better ways to recover and recycle higher volumes of flexible materials. FPE is taking a lead in this area.


Of course, flexible packaging will never entirely replace other formats. This is not only unlikely; it is undesirable, as some products are simply not suited to this packaging style. But where it can offer an alternative to existing rigid packaging there can be many advantages. It can be a highly desirable alternative, not only due to sustainability, but also because of its performance, shelf impact and versatility for the consumer in terms of convenience and ease of use.  

More info: www.flexpack-europe.org