Plastics packaging, probably the fastest-growing segment of all the packaging industries, should see a 5 percent growth in revenues this year, to nearly $40 billion, according to an analyst with Cleveland-based industry research firm Freedonia Group Inc. Paul Bailin, a packaging industry analyst with Freedonia, said rigid packaging should see 5-5.5 percent growth this year, and flexible packaging is expected to grow by 4.5-5 percent.
Many of the advances in flexible packaging markets for this year can be attributed to the innovations made in stand-up, reclosable pouches.
Ann Romeo, a packaging specialist with New York-based consulting firm Find/SVP, said traditional plastics packaging markets should make way for the pouch.
"The No. 1 or 2 questions I'm getting are, `What can we put in a pouch that isn't in a pouch yet?'" Romeo said in a telephone interview from her Seattle satellite office. "The fact that so many of these companies are asking these questions is a dead giveaway.
"Certainly the studies are indicating there's a definite wave toward flexible [packaging]."
In the coming years, markets presenting growth opportunities to flexible packagers will include dried fruits, cereals, frozen foods, health and beauty goods, single-use items, juices and water, Romeo said.
Elaborate graphics and improved horizontal zip closures finally are opening up those markets to flexible packagers, she said.
"It amazes me that it took so long to catch on," she said. "I think the equipment wasn't there to make it cost-effective and look right.
"If you take a look at what the pouches looked like seven or eight years ago, it was a vertical zipper and it didn't work."
Now is the time, she said, for printers to jump into the market.
"The main technology used to print these things is rotogravure," Romeo said. "The lithographers would love to get a piece of that market and are working on the ability to mark the films correctly.
"If I was a printer, I would love to develop the technique to do it by lithographic means."
In rigid plastics, PET containers still have the most significant growth, analysts say.
Beer, juices and acid-sensitive beverages are not too far into the horizon.
But hot-fill, wide-mouth PET jars and bottles ultimately will replace their glass counterparts, Freedonia's Bailin said.
For example, Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. recently announced it converted all of its single-serve glass juice bottles to PET, with the first shipments to fill store shelves in the first quarter.
"We did a study and found consumers preferred plastic packaging 3-to-1 over glass: They want a packaging that is portable, shatter-resistant and a lot more consumer-friendly," said Jennifer Goldston, manager of corporate communications at Ocean Spray in Lakeville, Mass. "This was a smart decision for us to make. It will expand our opportunities to be everywhere the consumer is."
Bailin predicted that hot-fill bottles and jars are going to be dominant packaging alternatives in the coming years, and York, Pa.-based Graham Packaging Co. LP is honing in now.
The blow molder introduced the first plastic jelly jar last fall, and now plans to focus its energies on further uses for hot-fill applications, said John Buttermore, vice president of market development.
Tomato sauces, salsas and pickles also will be making the conversion from glass to plastic, Buttermore said.
"That's the very front end of a pretty good-size market," he said. "Industrywide, we probably have only shipped about 100 million units out of 3.5 billion [wide-mouth bottles]. You can see the conversion has just begun."
Perk Thornton, a packaging analyst with Goldman Sachs in New York, said recycling is not the pressing issue for packagers it was five or six years ago, and the only area in which it continues to be an issue for rigid packagers is amber and brown beer bottles.
Romeo said open markets and room for new innovations should open a floodgate of new players, products and technology.
"This [is a] huge industry, but there's so much room for individuals and small companies to get in there," she said.
"That's why I don't think there'll ever be one company running everything."