Advances in Bio-based Flexible Packaging Materials

Demand for flexible packaging (paper, foil, and plastics) reached a total of US$248.6 billion in 2021, starting the sector’s recovery from the effects of the 2020 pandemic, according to Smithers, an industry research leader. Smithers forecast continued growth, predicting that the flexible packaging market could see total global value reach US$294.1 billion in 2026.

To learn more, Paper360° reached out to Mika Vähä-Nissi and Vinay Kumar, researchers at VTT Technical Research Center in Finland and speakers at the upcoming FlexPackPLACE Conference in San Diego, CA (see sidebar). In an engaging interview-style format, these packaging experts reveal what’s ahead in this dynamic and evolving sector.

vtt researchers display clear film developed from cellulose

Q: What do manufacturers/consumers value in flexible packaging?

Manufacturers and consumers value different things in flexible packaging. Here are some factors that are commonly valued:

  • Adaptability: Flexible packaging can be customized to fit a wide range of products, making it a versatile choice for manufacturers.
  • Customization: Flexible packaging can be printed with high-quality graphics and designs, which can help products stand out on store shelves.
  • Suitability: Flexible packaging is often preferred for products that require lightweight and durable packaging, such as snacks, pet food, and personal care products.

How is sustainability playing a role in today’s flexible packaging market?

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the environmental impact of packaging. The single-use plastics directive came into force in the EU, and many companies have been looking for ways to reduce the amount of plastic packaging they use.

A desire to shift from plastics to fiber-based materials can be observed in new flexible packaging developments. In addition to trying to reduce the use of plastics, companies have also begun to move away from fossil raw materials in plastics.

What can you tell us about VTT’s research work related to flexible packaging? How has this research been applied?

VTT has conducted extensive research on flexible packaging and has developed a range of innovative solutions that meet the needs of manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. Some key research areas include:

Developing new, sustainable materials for flexible packaging: With more than 10 years of cellulose film research experience, VTT works to develop new bio-based plastic materials and novel cellulose-based materials for flexible packaging. For example, cellulose films developed by VTT are both biobased and biodegradable. They can be placed in cardboard recycling along with other packages.

Improving the performance of flexible packaging: VTT works to improve the performance of flexible packaging materials with solutions such as new bio-based barrier coatings that can help extend the shelf life of food products. VTT also develops new processing methods to help convert various novel bio-based materials into coatings and flexible films for sustainable packaging applications.

VTT has worked for a long time with companies in the paper and packaging industry to develop new products and solutions, such as new types of bio-based packaging materials and new processes for production. With our customers and partners, we bring bio-based, resource-efficient, and smart packing solutions into the mainstream. (See sidebar for some recent examples.)

Overall, VTT’s research has had a significant impact on the paper and packaging industry, helping to improve sustainability, reduce waste, and create new, innovative solutions for manufacturers and consumers.

How can paper and packaging producers work with VTT researchers to develop new products, capture new markets, or fulfill consumer needs?

Through packaging development, we help our customers reach sustainability goals that their end customers are willing to pay for. VTT has a large set of technologies to process raw materials into highly performing packaging material solutions and convert them into packaging prototypes. Natural materials such as wood pulp and industrial side streams are often the starting material. We can assist customers in their packaging development journey from concept to piloting. Our customers come from the whole value chain of packaging and consumer products, including the raw material producers and converters.

We work with customers not only to develop new solutions, but to establish their commercial viability through tailored piloting. OPEX and CAPEX are VTT’s and our customers’ prime drivers in commercialization. Our piloting facilities, both a fiber-based material environment and an industrial chemistry environment, allow us to offer customized piloting solutions to meet varying customer needs.

Our facilities are equipped with a comprehensive set of material processing machines, roll-to-roll surface treatment lines, and pilot-scale production lines for conventional and foamed materials and coatings. Our facilities for printed intelligence enable the development of smart packaging concepts. We also offer laboratories where our researchers create and pretest solutions that are tailored to our customers’ specific needs.

Here are two ways to collaborate with VTT:

Conduct joint development projects: Paper and packaging producers can work with VTT researchers to develop new products or solutions tailored to their specific needs. This could include developing new packaging materials, improving production processes, or finding new ways to reduce waste.

Participate in VTT’s innovation ecosystem: Paper and packaging producers can participate in VTT’s innovation ecosystem, which brings together a wide range of stakeholders from industry, academia, and government to develop innovative solutions for the bioeconomy and material research.

What are the most exciting things you see ahead in flexible packaging?

There are many exciting developments happening in the world of flexible packaging, and VTT is at the forefront of many of them. Here are areas we find particularly exciting:

Sustainable materials. The development of new, sustainable materials for flexible packaging, such as bio-based plastics and cellulose-based materials, has the potential to revolutionize the industry and reduce its environmental impact.

Enabling re-use. Packaging is an essential part of the modern, efficient distribution of food and other consumer goods. Novel solutions that rethink packaging are also a part of the green transition—they combat climate change by, for example, reducing food spoilage and reducing the littering of the environment through a systemic approach. Digital solutions in a packaging context open completely new opportunities for sustainable development.

Advanced recycling methods: The development of new methods for recycling and upcycling flexible packaging materials, for example through chemical recycling and pyrolysis, could help reduce waste and improve sustainability.

Smart packaging: The changing landscape of e-commerce raises the bar for new packaging solutions. From consumer goods to food and medicine, companies need solutions that allow them to optimize the quality and efficiency of their logistics and deliveries. Smart packaging solutions are valuable especially for temperature-controlled logistics. In addition, the development of smart packaging that can monitor and communicate information about the product inside has the potential to improve food safety and reduce waste.

Industry collaborations: We need system-level approaches, including collaboration along the value chain, to achieve fully sustainable packaging. Collaborations between industry players and research institutions like VTT can drive innovation and lead to the development of new products and solutions that meet the evolving needs of consumers.

Overall, we think the future of flexible packaging is very exciting, and we look forward to seeing the many innovations that will emerge in the coming years.

Mika Vähä-Nissi is a principal scientist at VTT, with 30 years of experience in advancing science and technology for developing converting and packaging material solutions. He has been a TAPPI member since 1995. Dr. Vinay Kumar is a research team leader and project manager in the Biomaterials Processing and Products research area with more than 10 years of experience in the field of cellulose-based films and coatings.

VTT Projects Deliver Packaging Innovation

Here are a few recent innovations developed by VTT with packaging industry partners—visit to learn more or, for readers of our e-version, click on the project headlines.

Novel 3D wood fiber products tackle climate change and plastic challenges:

Metsä Spring, the innovation company of Metsä Group, wanted to establish a greenfield demo production line for the development of 3D wood fiber products. Valmet, supported by VTT, developed and designed the new line, which has a high automation rate, low production costs, and an efficient supply chain. The versatile new product offers an alternative to single-use plastics.

Formable, cellulose-based webs enable a range of 3D packaging solutions:

In a pilot-scale study, VTT obtained unprecedented maximum limits of its highly extensible formable, cellulose-based webs used for rigid packaging applications. Typical commercial boards have between 3-6 percent extensibility; using foam forming technology, VTT obtained up to 30 percent extensibility. This enables brand owners to use rigid, cardboard-like, cellulose-based packaging for consumers seeking more sustainable products.

VTT scales up production of sustainable cellulose film:

VTT’s CelluloseFilms pilot facility is ready to scale up production. The new material is designed to replace the plastic film used in most modern food packaging. The facility’s goal is to develop easily recyclable, cellulose-based film-like materials for food packaging and bio-based barrier materials for films, paper, and cardboard.