How have trends shaped the flexible packaging industry? Tune in to hear what Matt Reynolds, Editor at Packaging World for PMMI Media Group has to say.
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00:00:02 Sara Januszewski
Ok, well I’m just going to go ahead and get right into it. I want to welcome everyone that is on right now to the fifth episode of the Flexible Packaging Round Table. And if anyone is new here, this is a series that we have been providing to give people some insight into the flexible packaging industry. Today we will be speaking with Matt Reynolds, Editor at Packaging World for PMMI Media Group about flexible packaging and the trends that he is seeing from an editorial perspective. I am your host, Sara Januszewski.
00:00:50 Sara Januszewski
So, to get things started here Matt. Can you just tell us more about yourself and the work that you do for Packaging World?
00:01:00 Matt Reynolds
Yeah, but before I do, I would be remiss not to mention I know there’s probably a few Wisconsinites watching right now. Congratulations on the Bucks win last night. I’m sure everybody is excited in the Milwaukee area. I’m from Kenosha originally, so not too far away from where you guys are. So definitely following the Bucks, but since leaving Kenosha, I’ve been in the trade press for my entire career. I started with baking magazines like industrial baking, volume baking, baking management and so on. From there I had a little bit of a segue over into machine tools. So, CNC, Lays, these type of high production 2D, 3D manufacturing and then ever since about 2014 or so I’ve been here in the packaging space which kind of combines both of those pretty nicely.
00:01:52 Matt Reynolds
So here at Packaging World, obviously we’re a traditional print magazine, which we still have going strong. People say print is dead. I say show me the body. But we’re trying formats like this one, and you know audio, visual type of formats to really try and provide our content and our fact finding and reporting in any format that people want to consume it. So that could be here on Instagram live, that could be video, audio. It’s sort of like the read-watch-listen model and we try and be there for whatever format is suitable for our readers.
00:02:28 Sara Januszewski
Awesome, building off that, with all the work you’ve done in the magazine space, can you talk to us about some of the trends that you have seen specifically over the past year, like with COVID and everything that’s been going on.
00:02:46 Matt Reynolds
Yeah, so if we talk about trends, we talk about straight lines over 10 or 15 years for the most part, in one direction or another, but 2020 as we all know, all bets were off. So, a lot of trends that had been going steadily were thrown off or increased exponentially, or stopped completely. It’s all part of the, you know, through the lens of the pandemic. So, you mentioned last year I would say about 18 months or so is when we really started seeing things go awry and amiss. I guess what we phrase or what we call that is sort of a recalibration of the Omni channel. And by Omni channel I mean how are your packaged products? Your consumer products getting out to consumers. Traditionally we have kind of like the three legs of the stool. We think of that as retail, food service and within food service there’s sort of a hospitality or even institutional like college dorm cafeterias that sort of thing. I think food service and hospitality is one and then obviously retail, which is another major you know, we all saw the shocks in the system early on February, March that retail endured and then e-commerce is one that has long been growing again in a straight-line growth curve but maybe, the last 18 months have created an acceleration and growth that we didn’t initially expect. Where we expected to be in 2030 with adoption of e-commerce. Maybe we’re going to be in 2025 because some folks that never would have, you know, ordered whatever it is, HelloFresh, or Blue Apron or even Amazon previously suddenly see it as a viable option and a certain percentage of those are going to remain e-commerce customers now.
00:04:29 Matt Reynolds
Not all of that’s going to be, you know, it’s not permanent necessarily, but it’s not going back to where it was before. So, whether you talked to Mintel or McKinsey some of these consumer brands, consumer trends, companies that are always following and listening ear to the ground on exactly what’s going on. We always talk about a next normal or a new normal or something like that, and that’s going to be the case whatever it was in in December 2019. You know, whatever that mix between food service, retail, and e-commerce. Whatever that was is not going to be the same going forward. I don’t think the dust is settled yet. It’s starting to, knock on wood, and hopefully no other wrenches thrown in there by the delta variant or anything like that. So, there’s a lot still unknown. But what I mean to say is this recalibration of the Omni channel is affecting packaging profoundly, so that’s one of the big things, one of the big themes we’ve seen in the last 18 months or so, and another one is kind of harder to quantify. It’s all hard to quantify, but this is much more difficult, and that’s more of a societal upheaval and societal change occurred at the other side of all the change with lockdowns and so on. There’s a lot of protests going on, there’s a lot of societal awareness that have been, has existed under the surface, but bubbled up to the surface now. Brands are being asked to address this. No longer can they stand on the sidelines and sell to this group and sell to this group equally, people are increasingly asking brands to have a stance, have something to say and some of that is, you know, it’s probably lip service and there’s no getting around it, but honestly, they’re making a calculation and it’s not all out of you know, pure goodwill that these things are happening.
00:06:19 Matt Reynolds
They’re making a calculation. This is what people want. This is where people are, and these brands have to reflect it. How do they reflect it? Help one of the main ways is in the packaging itself, so packaging is sort of the one downstream method for branding and announcing a brand message and giving a brand stance which is becoming increasingly important. So, I think one of the really cool, you know, however you spin it, it could be upsides and downsides, but one of the really cool ways to look at it is through the lens of inclusive packaging. And when I say inclusive packaging, that could be smart packaging or it could be etching on existing, you know, let’s say rigid bottles have new etchings on them so that the visually impaired can feel them in like say, a shower setting. Unilever came out with a really interesting one, it’s called degree inclusive. It’s a deodorant that has an intrinsic hook on it that we’ll be able to hang in the shower setting and instead of having a screw that, there’s magnets involved. Well magnets are a really expensive thing to add to a package, but they’re going down the reusable packaging space, and it becomes more of like a reusability kind of thing. They’ll get refill units to refill that durable pack, so that kind of durable packaging is another way to look at it.
00:07:33 Matt Reynolds
The inclusive packaging, and that’s a segue to the third big trend that we’ve seen over the last 18 months, and that’s sustainability. We saw, I’d say early on at the outset of the pandemic we saw the not so fast, single use plastics really seemed like a smart, hygienic way to go, compared to something that would be durable that you’d have to watch, because hygiene was top of everybody’s minds, and that existed for a while. But I think again, asking those same consumer brand companies, it’s Mintel or McKinsey or anybody that the new normal, the new consumer emerging at the far end of the pandemic, is going to be even more in tune with good of the planet, good of humanity and all of that is kind of a piece with sustainability. So those are three, I know that’s a wordy way to get it, but three big trends that we saw come out of the last 18 months or so.
00:08:31 Sara Januszewski
Great and building off that, you know, the sustainability that you were just talking about, the e-commerce, the inclusive packaging. How have all of those trends impacted the flexible packaging industry specifically?
00:08:48 Matt Reynolds
Yeah, well, flexible packaging has a big part to play in each and every one of those segments? I mentioned having a stance or being able to say something and I might be jumping around a little bit but brands that need to be able to say something they need to be able to pivot, they need to be able to immediately address something. Let’s say a Black History Month or International Women’s Day is one where they have to develop where, they don’t have to, but they’re choosing to because they’re making a calculation that this behooves them to do so. To address these folks in, you know whether it’s a short campaign we saw one from Hershey. I say Hershey because it’s the brand Hershey, like the chocolate, but you know, baked right into the name there is Hershey. So, Hershey Brazil had a really interesting campaign using digital printing on flexible packaging to be able to show art, music, science, ways women have impacted culture over the years, and they’re able to devote an entire months worth of packaging to this. Due to flexible packaging and the ability to print digitally, print on flexible packaging in a way that they can send rollstock, not sending completed rigid packages, that you know then have shipping air at that point, which works against the whole sustainability theme. You’re shipping rollstock or if you’re a converter, you’re printing it, your die-cutting it and you’re sending finished pouches. Whatever the case may be, you’re not shipping air but you’re able to turn on a dime, address things quickly, have a stance, have brief campaigns and you don’t have to make a million. Your minimum order quantity as a brand can be much smaller when you’re running your campaign via digital printing, so that’s one way.
00:10:32 Matt Reynolds
I mean, there’s probably a million more, you know better than I do, that digital printing or flexibles in general are going to be hand in hand with this kind of social or inclusive packaging theme. Also, when it comes to the recalibration of the Omni channel, what I called it, this tectonic movement of food service, retail, hospitality and e-commerce. I think early on in the pandemic you had the shift from, let’s say, a restaurant that was regularly accepting 50 or £100 flexible bags of frozen chicken thighs and that suddenly dries up because food service is shuttered for sometime or at least extremely curtailed. And instead, those chickens, people eat the same amount that people, for me, I ate more during the pandemic. It’s a matter of how you get it and from the retail side of things, will that flexible packaging require, say, nutrition facts? That’s a labeling thing or is that something that’s printed on from the converters point of view? I don’t know. I know the FDA gave converters a little bit of leeway and gave brands a little bit of leeway for some time there but, but it’s a very different pack. The one that’s going to the restaurant or the one that’s going to the hotel £50 of Tyson chicken. Sorry to use a brand name but just popped to mind versus you know those two chicken thighs that my wife and I are going to pick off a retail shelf that have the nutrition facts on there. Well, I mean being able to be flexible and agile.
00:12:00 Matt Reynolds
Flexible packaging needs to be flexible in the sense that it needs to be able to do a lot of things at once, wear a lot of hats. I think it came through admirably in the entire pandemic, especially early on, you know once those big shocks kind of started to recalibrate, we’re kind of seeing easing off but that’s one spot. Again, you’ll know better than I do, but that’s one spot where the recalibration of Omni channel is addressed or seen in flexible packaging. Finally, the big one is sustainability, and flexible packaging is by and large plastic and for better or for worse, it’s received a bit of a black eye. People have this image of albatross with the six pack rings around its neck or the sea turtle, and that’s indelible. I mean, people are aware of that now. So, it’s a matter of controlling the message, they’re controlling the narrative. It’s more lightweight, you’re not shipping air. There’s all sorts of positives to it. Nobody that I know of has come up with the right formula that is the perfect package for any given product, but until we have that formula, it’s a matter of controlling the narrative from the flexible standpoint to say, hey, we’re here too and we get your product there safely, effectively with very little greenhouse emissions and we make sure that it is shelf stable, is not going to go bad on your shelf or in your fridge. So again, those three big trends. Flexible packaging has a key role to play in all of them. I’m sure in a million more ways than what I just explained to.
00:13:34 Sara Januszewski
I would be curious to hear what you have to say, because I feel like I’ve been noticing in the flexible packaging realm that there is a lot of refill pouches coming out, like bigger pouches that are, you know, 64, 48 ounces that people can use to refill a plastic bottle or a hand dispenser at home.
00:14:01 Matt Reynolds
Absolutely yeah, and that’s something we’re seeing a lot of, whether it’s part of the loop campaign is the big durable packaging campaign. But there’s a lot similar to that, and the big brands are doing it. Often we see this in personal care instead of constantly buying and throwing out that rigid bottle of Head and Shoulders, for lack of a better example. What about a nicer looking, durable package that can sit on your counter? And it might be made of something like, you know, aluminum or some sort of super durable material that is then refilled with flexible packaging. Again, lightweight, recyclable. Ideally you know that’s the onset of mono materials that we’re seeing, and I’m sure we’ll get to that shortly. But you know, these are recyclable things if people know how to recycle them, that’s of course the kind of the bugaboo there was the key is getting people to recycle and I have to say, for better or for worse, people immediately recognize aluminum as recyclable because they’ve been recycling their Diet Coke cans since 1982 and paper is wood, there’s this immediate mental connection there that doesn’t necessarily exist once you get into the alphabet soup of HDPE versus LDPE and that again it’s a narrative, it’s a campaign that can be won, and you know, hearts and minds can be won, and I think they will over time, but just demonstrating its ability to take a product instead of a heavy product that needs to be shipped out or via e-commerce, picked up from a retail situation. Instead, you buy this heavy, durable thing that’s going to be there for a long time and then you refill over time with lightweight packages that don’t have to do a whole lot of work sitting there on the counter over the eight months or whatever, basically all they have to do is get the product into that durable package, and I think that makes a lot of sense. That flexible has a lot to say there.
00:16:00 Sara Januszewski
Got it. Down below we have a comment from Brent and he’s asking thoughts on future or advance/chemical recycling. Do you have any insight on that?
00:16:12 Matt Reynolds
Yes, That’s the silver bullet isn’t it. We’re following it, I spent some time talking with Bruce Welch. He’s down at the University of Florida, but there’s multiple other ones that I’m forgetting the name of the company now, there’s another one that is contracting with one of the big brands. Unilever spun it off, I don’t remember the details now. It’s like a venture capital version of Unilever. I don’t know exactly how they’re connected, but yeah, that would be the silver bullet. We just don’t have the infrastructure for it, but chemical recycling is to break down the plastic or whatever it might. It doesn’t have to be plastic, to its smallest polymer unit and then be able to build that back up to whatever you want it to be. Basically, the same quality as virgin, so one knock that you know, rightly or wrongly, on recycled plastic, oftentimes or plastic as it comes out of the ocean is that over cycle after cycle after cycle then you can lose some clarity problems or transparency problems or whatever that might be, but with chemical recycling, ideally, you’re getting a virgin product every time out of a circular fashion and it doesn’t just apply to plastics, the infrastructure for chemical recycling would be pan material. In an ideal world, it’s a matter of creating the infrastructure there and not creating an infrastructure that’s fractured where you can do it in Seattle. You can do it in San Francisco, but you can’t do it in Topeka because then I mean, that’s sort of the problem with recycling right now is it’s so fractured and nobody knows from location to location what works, you know, is compostability available here. Can I do that in my backyard? Can I compost, is there infrastructure for it? So, I think we’re seeing some positive movement there in terms of brands and all sorts of stakeholders. I’m sure FPA is involved in trying to get recycling right across the United States and instead of just municipality by municipality, but it’s a long-winded way of saying that perhaps the most interesting and the most promising thing is chemical recycling, but it’s also probably the most distant at the moment. It’s doable in labs and so on, just the infrastructure isn’t there. But I’d be happy to be told otherwise because that’s good news if so.
00:18:43 Sara Januszewski
Great, another question here is how has sustainability shaped your editorial perspective?
00:18:53 Matt Reynolds
It’s been difficult because and I’m sure FPA is fighting these battles every day. The amount of misinformation might be the wrong word because that implies intention, but I guess misinformation versus disinformation. Whatever it might be, there’s a lot of competing claims out there and those competing claims, oftentimes you know two claims made by two different entities can’t both be true, so for me it’s a matter of well this product weighs 40% less, so it uses X amount less greenhouse gas. Well, how much or let’s say it’s aluminum, how much greenhouse gas did it take to actually extract the ore from the earth? You know that was it, and then how many cycles of recycling that aluminum. After how many cycles does that suddenly become carbon neutral or drop down, so as far as I know, there is no single algorithm that really accounts for everything from soup to nuts from extracting the material or harvesting.
00:19:51 Matt Reynolds
In the case of bioplastic, you know harvesting the corn or the sugar cane and how much water is that taking and is that diverting water away from other crops that are say food crops versus something that’s going to go to a bioplastic or kind of a non-fossil based. So, until we have that perfect formula that every variable is accounted for then I am very careful editorially to be able to make any claims. Now I will say that, said the FPA or said the aluminum industry or said this brand but I have to be careful to make sure that I’m reflecting what I’m seeing and not commenting on it as much as possible, although I can’t help myself every once in a while.
00:20:36 Sara Januszewski
Ok, great and to kind of wrap things up here. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
00:20:43 Matt Reynolds
Yeah, everybody get vaccinated. Let’s go to Las Vegas in September and see you there, see me, there’s going to be a lot going on. There’s multiple pavilions, a lot that could apply very closely to flexible packaging. There’s so much going on and flexible with, you know that moves towards mono materials, which we’re hearing everywhere, a thin layer of EVOH is maybe all you need for a barrier and that goes right into existing recycle stream, will be a lot going on. There was two years ago, in 2019, in Las Vegas quite a bit just starting and that moves even into the OEM’s themselves. How are these machinery builders? How are they grappling with new materials? And then I know members of the FPA have all these companies that are coming up with new materials and Glenroy is one of them. They have this host of new materials that are more recyclable, going to where the consumers are. So that’s all going to be at Pack Expo. There’s going to be pavilions like the package print pavilion. It’s going to be a Pet Expo that’s going to deal a lot with converters and digital printing specifically, but also your usuals, your flexo and whatever might be new there. So, I think there’s also going to be a little bit of a dam bursting on two years of us waiting to see each other and exchange ideas. I think that’s all going to happen in Las Vegas in September, so I hope to see you there.
00:22:00 Sara Januszewski
Yes, you as well. Yep, September 27th through the 29th everyone and Glenroy will be in Booth SU-7925. So come and see us!
00:22:26 Matt Reynolds
Good, but I will see you there and I’ll be sure to see you and Ken there, and see what Glenroy’s got cooking.
00:22:30 Sara Januszewski
Fantastic, well thank you again Matt for giving us a bunch of insight on all the trends that you’re seeing from your perspective. And I also just want to mention that next month in August we will have Rob Johnson, who is the CEO of Born Simple join us, so stay tuned for that.
00:22:54 Matt Reynolds
Cool, I’ll watch.
00:23:01 Sara Januszewski
Good stuff, alright. Thank you so much, Matt.