Flexible packaging is lightweight bags and pouches that can be sealed using heat or pressure. They provide minimal protection from being crushed or from perforation but are manufactured with a very little cost. Rigid packaging, on the other hand, usually consists of tin cans, cardboard or plastic boxes, as well as glass containers. They are heavier and more expensive but provide a better protection.
Both flexible and rigid packaging have a wide range of uses in the present packaging industry. Both these packaging types have their very own areas where they are exclusively used, as well as an overlapping area where flexible and rigid packaging are often interchangeably used.
Key Differences Between Flexible Packaging and Rigid Packaging
1. Size and Weight of Packaging
When it comes to the weight of the packaging, the rigid packaging is far heavier than flexible packaging. This is because the rigid packaging is often made from denser and thicker materials. Most commonly seen rigid packaging is paperboard boxes followed by tin and aluminium cans and glass bottles. All of these are heavier than plastic sheets that are used in flexible packaging.
Size of the packaging, however, varies according to the requirements. Rigid packaging generally takes up more space as they cannot be squeezed together as they are bundled. Then again, the sole purpose of rigid packaging is to prevent the deformation of the inner contents.
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2. Durability and Barrier Properties
Rigid packaging generally provides better protection to the inner contents, but they are more prone to external deformation. In case of rigid packagings, such as tin or cardboard packaging, the surface can be easily dented or scratched, damaging the external printed materials. The flexible packaging does not get dented or deformed so easily. Nevertheless, they too can be scratched or can be impaled during shipping. Still, flexible packaging is less likely to get any form of cosmetic damages during shipping.
Products that are fragile in nature are shipped using rigid packaging only, even though the external packaging may suffer cosmetic damage. Electronic items, such as retail boxes of computer processors, motherboard, or other components, smartphones and related accessories, cameras and lenses, televisions – these all come in rigid packaging and often with rigid Styrofoam or corrugated board padding. In all these cases, the cost of the rigid packaging is often a very small fraction of the actual product cost.
Flexible packaging is often used in low-cost products. Food and cosmetics are often packed in flexible packaging. Milk bags are quite common in Canada, parts of Europe and Asia. Chips, biscuits, cakes, cereals, bread, dried fruits and nuts, ready to cook meals, pickles, sauces – all come in flexible packaging.
Here is more information about flexible packaging in food sector.
One of the reasons why flexible packaging is preferred for food is because of its barrier properties. Flexible packaging is manufactured using multiple layers of polymers and often metalized sheets, such as aluminium lined plastics are also used. This provides a proper chemical and thermal shielding to the products inside. The barrier properties prevent any gaseous exchange, exposure to light and heat, and also can survive a wide range of temperatures, retaining the freshness of the inner contents. However, there are exceptions too. The Pringles packaging is a rigid packaging made from tin and cardboard but also has an interior membrane that provides the barrier properties.
3. Branding and Customisation
Flexible packaging provides more freedom when it comes to customization. Once can choose virtually any design, color or surface finish and have it on a flexible packaging in a cost-effective manner. Moreover, flexible packaging is available in a wide range of shapes and sizes, so manufacturers can really make their product stand out on shelves.
Rigid packaging is difficult to customize, and often cost a lot more than customizing flexible packaging. Directly printing on surfaces of tin, glass or corrugated boards is difficult. Often the content is printed separately on paper and is then pasted using adhesives on the rigid packaging. This requires extra time and money.
4. Environmental Impact
Environmental impact of a packaging depends solely on the materials used. Paperboard and corrugated cardboard boxes are rigid packagings that can be easily be recycled. Flexible packaging made from low-density polyethene (LDPE) or polypropylene (PP) can be recycled too.
However, recycling becomes difficult when materials are mixed. When paperboard boxes are lined with plastic films, or when plastic pouches have metallic laminates, recycling becomes difficult.
Which Packaging Should You Use?
The one you need to use solely depends on what the packaging will contain and who will be the target audience. Flexible packaging has lower costs in manufacturing, warehousing and shipping. For retailers, it is convenient as they take up lesser shelf space, as well as have a better shelf life. For consumers, flexible packaging provides an easily disposable packaging solution that can also be resealed if needed.
Rigid packaging is more expensive but provides the protection that cannot be achieved in flexible packaging. Manufacturers move to rigid packaging when the cost of the product goes up. Moreover, they use a low-cost flexible packaging on the inside to provide the barrier and anti-static properties, and a rigid packaging on the outside for the protection.
For example, CDs, DVDs or other optical discs come in both flexible pouches made from paper, plastic sheets, or non-woven fabric. These usually take less space and also offer minimal protection from bumps and scratches. This type of packaging is used when the disc is sold as a complementary product, as something that contains additional instructions, contents, or other software. As a standalone product, these discs are sold in hard plastic cases or jewel cases. This is the type of packaging one gets when the purchase a music album or a movie DVD.
Hence, what you will use completely depends on your needs.
Current Market Trends
Sale of products like sauces, soups, baby food, detergents and cleaning supplies in flexible packaging has recently made it a preferred choice. Previously, these were generally packed in glass bottles or tin cans. However, the changes are mostly seen in the food, cosmetics, clothing and for certain categories of healthcare products. Electronics, electrical appliances, stationery products, laboratory instruments – all use rigid packaging.7