As sustainability becomes an increasingly important focus for industry, packaging film producers and users are fine-tuning their products to become part of the 'green plastics' revolution.
For many years film producers have lauded their products for their ability to reduce waste - and therefore cost - as well as their capacity to protect, most notably in the food sector, but also in other key markets such as pharmaceuticals.
Now, however, as consumers and regulators alike urge packaging companies to do more in terms of sustainability, some producers argue that adopting barrier film technologies will be a vital part of the industry's attempts to get its green message across.
Many argue that barrier film is naturally more environmentally-friendly because of its ability to replace much heavier materials such as glass and metal, as well as heavier all-plastics packaging options.
"Barrier material is a winning material - it is lightweight and has a low carbon footprint when compared to glass and metal," says Wout Luyton, business development manager at EVOH resin supplier Eval. "Metal takes more energy to produce."
Food and beverages packaged in metal and glass also use more energy in transportation, he says, meaning that boxed wine - which uses barrier film to preserve the drink - has a lower carbon footprint than a traditional glass bottle.
Julia S Schlenz, market development manager at Dow Specialty Packaging & Films, agrees, saying brand owners are attempting to move away from crack sensitive and expensive structures, especially in food packaging.
"The industry is looking for overall packaging reduction, which means more flexible packaging versus rigid as well as an overall reduced amount of material used," she says.
Europe is clearly an important area for barrier film investment, as can be seen with recent developments from Japanese companies Toray and Nippon Gohsei.
Last year, Toray announced plans to construct a production facility in Europe - Toray Films Europe - to produce bi-axially oriented polypropylene (BOPP) high-barrier metallized film. The firm plans to invest approximately €4m in the project, with operations due to start next year.
And Nippon Gohsei is marketing its latest PVOH coating material - a high gas barrier - throughout the region. It says the amorphous vinyl alcohol polymer is now widely used in the emulsion, coatings and moulding markets.
Some companies are taking the sustainability trend one step further and are creating biodegradable and renewable barrier films. One such firm is Innovia, which recently launched an enhanced barrier version of its Nat-ureFlex compostable cellulose packaging film derived from wood pulp.
Innovia spokesperson Zena Bergmann says customers use NatureFlex because it provides the same functional performance as metallized film but biodegrades, even in the conditions of a home composting system, resulting in the opportunity to reduce packaging waste in the environment.
A new but key trend in the sustainable barrier film market is toward harnessing the power of nanotechnology, as developers claim the use of nanomaterials will make it possible to reduce the amount of total packaging material needed.
InMat's latest Nanolok PT ADV-7 coating applied in thicknesses in the range of 0.5-0.8 microns provides better oxygen barrier than 10-20 microns of EVOH, claims the company. Nanolok president, Harris Goldberg, says many converters and owners are evaluating this new technology as part of their attempts to use less material.
"This has meant looking for new technologies that provide the required performance with thinner films," he says. However, some companies warn that nanotechnology is still in its infancy and so should be treated with caution. Frank Chen, spokesperson for DSM, says the industry needs better technology for nano materials as they are not yet reliable or cost effective.
He refuses to say whether DSM is working with nanomaterials or not, saying only that the firm "has close relationships with research institutes that work on nanotechnology".