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Plastics for Barrier Packaging

  • Published: January 2012
  • |
  • Report Code: PLS014F


  • The U.S. barrier packaging market totaled 8.1 billion lbs in 2011 and should grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 1.5% over the next five years reaching 8.7 billion lbs in 2016.
  • The barrier resins segment, the largest segment, totaled 7.2 billion lbs in 2011 and is forecast to reach 7.8 billion lbs by 2016 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 1.5%.
  • The permeable films segment reached 637 million lbs in 2011 and BCC forecasts this market will reach 686 million lbs in 2016 growing at a CAGR of 1.5%.

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Source: BCC Research

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This report is an update of a BCC Research report on this subject by the same author, published in February 2008 and completed some months before that date.  In this new update, we have reevaluated the entire subject, introduced some new barrier packaging concepts and products that have appeared in the intervening period, and have updated and refined our market analyses, estimates, and forecasts for five additional years into the future, to 2016.

Despite the fact that much of the basic technology of barrier plastics is the same, we found that progress had continued to be made in the few years since the last BCC Research report on this subject.  One subject that continues to get attention is plastic packaging for beer, with new technologies unveiled and promoted.  Beer is a very difficult product to package because of its high sensitivity to rapid taste degradation from exposure to oxygen, At this time, at least in the United States, barrier polyethylene terephthalate (PET) beer bottles have not shown that they can provide the extended shelf life that glass and aluminum can, except for short shelf-life beer for sports events and the like.  But work continues by barrier packaging firms and beer bottlers that want plastic beer bottles.

Other developments prominently featured in the last report, such as increasingly more sophisticated multilayer (ML) barrier packaging structures and controlled/modified atmosphere packaging for fresh produce and other fresh foods, continue to grow in importance and usage in these fields is updated here.


Packaging, and plastics used in packaging, are seen virtually everywhere in modern developed society.  Most of the goods bought by the public in developed societies are packaged, as are an increasing number in developing countries as well.  (One side effect from all this packaging has been a constant barrage of complaints from activists that products are “overpackaged” and this excess packaging contributes to our big waste load.)  Many companies have reacted and continue to react to these complaints by reducing or changing their packaging to make the final package less complex and/or using less packaging material.

Packaging has been around for centuries, and probably was developed for a number of reasons.  These include preservation and stability of products over time and the protection of products from damage, dirt, moisture, etc.  Early packaging was quite crude (e.g., the casks and cases of salted meat carried on old sailing ships, which often went to sea for extended lengths of time).

All packaging provides some sort of barrier; this is a primary reason for packaging products in the first place.  Packaging protects products from infiltration (or, in some cases, exfiltration, the latter the passing of a material or materials out of the container) of contaminants, of flavor, color, odor, etc., as well as preserving the contents.  Glass and metal containers have been used for packaging goods for many years and certainly qualify as barrier packages.  As we discuss later, thick glass and metal qualify as “functional” barriers that stop just about everything from passing through them.

Plastics, that is polymers ordinarily made from chemical and petrochemical raw materials, are everywhere around us, in a multitude of goods ranging from small children’s toys to automobile bodies and house siding.  Packaging examples are also legion, most visible in food and beverage products but also well known for consumer items such as the ubiquitous “clamshell” clear rigid thermoformed packaging for hardware and “jewel box” cassette cases (and CDs and DVDs themselves).  Packaging is the single largest end user of plastic resins in the United States.  For many years, packaging has consumed more than one-quarter of all the resins used in any year in the United States.

In this study we look at a very important segment of the packaging industry, that of plastic barrier packaging and the plastic resins that supply these barriers (i.e., polymers that are used in packaging to provide a barrier to some unwanted intrusion in or out of the package).  Barrier resins block the passage of several important substances, including oxygen, moisture, odors, flavors, and others.

Different experts and observers use different terms to describe the use and function of plastics in barrier packaging, and most of these terms are somewhat arbitrary.  They can also be confusing.  First and foremost, this study is devoted entirely to synthetic barrier plastics; that is, those primarily derived from petrochemical feedstocks.  We briefly describe cellophane, the one natural barrier film still in some use, but do not include it in our market estimates and forecasts since it is not synthetic and for years it has been considered an obsolete product with a declining market.

Among synthetic resins, many analysts attempt to differentiate between barrier resins and structural resins used in packaging.  By defining some limits of gas permeability that constitute barrier properties, resins are placed in one or the other category.  BCC  Research does not rigidly classify barrier packaging resins in this way, for not only is “barrier” an arbitrary term, but different resins can perform both barrier and structural functions in some plastic packaging structures.  All resins discussed and analyzed in this report are considered to be barrier resins, even if their use may predominantly be structural in many or most of their packaging structures.

We do consider polyolefins (polyethylenes and polypropylene), polystyrene (PS), and other such strong support resins to primarily be structural; we call them secondary barrier resins.  This is to differentiate them from the primary barrier resins such as ethylene-vinyl alcohol copolymer (EVOH) and polyvinylidene chloride (PVdC).  The latter are included in barrier structures strictly for their gas barrier properties.

As good example of combination structure and barrier is the common polyethylene terephthalate carbonated soft drink (CSD) or water bottle.  In this application, the primary structural resin, PET, has sufficient barrier against the primary pass-through material (in this case the exfiltration of carbon dioxide “fizz” from the contained soda) to be a used in a simple monolayer plastic structure for many CSDs.  However, it is really a relatively poor barrier resin and all CSDs lose “fizz” over time, with this degradation accelerated by exposure to heat; most of us have experienced opening a rather old plastic soda bottle and finding the contents flat.  Many major soft drink bottlers now often put “use by” dates, or other means of identifying the package’s age, on CSD bottles

To package a more demanding product such as beer, which can rapidly degrade from oxygen infiltration, a better barrier structure is needed and the plastic packaging industry has been working for several years on this challenge; this was one the most interesting developments around the turn of the century, discussed in our previous updates and still of interest.  Plastic, primarily PET-based, beer bottles have been a desired product for years, but at this time the “ideal” plastic beer bottle that can truly preserve beer for the desired period of time is not yet a widespread commercial reality, especially in the U.S.

In many other cases, a multilayer structure (MLS), either laminated or coextruded, is needed to provide both strength and barrier.  Some of these ML structures, even for seemingly simple products like snack foods, are wonders to behold and now often have seven or more different plastic layers, each layer providing a different structural, barrier, or adhesive function.

The growth of plastic barrier packaging, in the sophisticated sense used in this report, has been significant since the discovery and development of the first synthetic specialty barrier resin, polyvinylidene chloride, Dow Chemical’s old Saran brand) in the 1950s and 1960s.  (Dow sold the household Saran Wrap to S.C. Johnson but retains the trademark in the U.S. for the basic resin products.)  The commercialization of ethylene vinyl alcohol came a bit later, in the 1970s.  As we said, these two resins are the backbone of high-barrier plastic packaging.

It was the development of coextrusion technology that enabled the efficient manufacture of ML plastic structures in a wide range of thicknesses, in a single pass through one machine.  Coextrusion is just that, a process that extrudes more than one type of resin simultaneously through an extrusion die to form an MLS with discrete and independent layers bonded to each other.  The development of coextrusion really caused barrier packaging growth to take off in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Before then, ML structures were made by laminating two plastic layers together with heat or adhesives, a slower and intrinsically less efficient process.  Lamination still is an important MLS method, especially for resin combinations that are difficult to coextrude.

Adding to the interest in this subject, the barrier packaging industry changes constantly.  An ideal polymeric barrier does not exist, and probably never will, since each application has different requirements.  In some cases, for example in the packaging of meat, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a film that is not a good oxygen barrier, has been commonly used to package beef in supermarket meat displays for years, since it keeps beef color red and inviting for the short time it is on display.  However, for long-term transport or storage of meat, a good oxygen barrier is needed to prevent spoilage.  Newer packaging was required for “boxed beef,” packages of commercial beef cuts (sirloins, round steak, etc.) that are produced at the processing plant and then shipped in refrigerated boxes for direct sale at the supermarket.  A common system in use today uses two film layers, a good barrier for shipment that is removed at the supermarket to expose a PVC film that allows oxygen to infiltrate and keep the beef red.

Current barrier packaging plastics are good, but problems remain that restrict their use or hinder their growth in many applications.  These include:

  • High cost, almost always higher than the cost of a simple monolayer plastic package of, for example, polyethylene or polypropylene (PP).
  • Susceptibility to contamination or degradation, especially by moisture: EVOH is the best example of this problem, since its hydroxyl groups give it good barrier qualities but also make it susceptible to hydrolysis.  As a result, EVOH only can be used as an inner layer in an MLS, since its barrier properties degrade to virtual worthlessness when EVOH is subjected to high humidity.
  • Disposal or recycling problems: Because most MLS contain more than one type of plastic, they cannot easily be commingled and recycled with, for example, straight high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or PET.  Many ML containers must be classified and labeled with the SPI recycling number “7” for “other.”
  • Challenges from competing materials and processes, some of them old and proven like glass and metallization, and newer ones such as silicon and other oxide coatings that can provide a superior barrier.

Our goal is to describe the most common and popular barrier polymers and their applications, their technology, competing barrier materials, and future trends.  We estimate and forecast markets for barrier polymers of several kinds and in several different important markets such as food and healthcare packaging.  The polymers and applications that we cover are described and briefly discussed below in the “Scope and Format” section below.


As noted above, packaging constitutes the single, largest end use of plastics in the United States.  And more and more packaging is barrier packaging, which is taking on increased importance each year as both producers and customers seek longer shelf life and better product integrity, flavor, potency, etc.

BCC Research has maintained and updated this study to provide a comprehensive reference for those interested and/or involved in these products and who want an up-to-date review of the field and estimated markets.  This cohort of people and organizations includes a wide and varied group of chemical and other companies that make and use barrier polymers, process technology and equipment designers and marketers, politicians of all stripes, and the general public.  We have collected, condensed, and analyzed information from a large amount of literature and other reference materials to compile this report.

Many developments over the past generation or so in barrier packaging were done to develop even more sophisticated multilayer barrier packaging structures, needed to solve the most difficult barrier packaging problems economically.  These developments are a primary and continuing focus of this study.  As this technology was developed, four basic barrier materials were found and used widely: PVDC, nylon, EVOH, and metallized films.  Consumer demand for foods with longer shelf life, high-quality, and excellent flavor and freshness retention has led to even more sophisticated MLS that often are thinner than their less-efficient predecessors, but also usually more sophisticated and complicated, usually with more (but usually thinner) layers.  This has occurred because of the better choice of barriers and structural layers in the ML structure.  It often results in a thinner coextruded or molded film or rigid structure with more layers that can do a better job than a simpler and thicker one.


This report is intended to inform and assist those involved in several different U.S. industrial and commercial business sectors, primarily individuals with a primary interest in packaging.  These organizations and people include those involved in development, formulation, manufacture, sale, and use of barrier polymer and polymer processes; also those in ancillary businesses such as processing equipment as well as additives and other support chemicals and equipment.  These include process and product development experts, process and product designers, purchasing agents, construction and operating personnel, marketing staff, and top management.  BCC Research feels that this report will be of great value to technical and business personnel in the following areas, among others:

  • Marketing and management personnel in companies that produce, market, and sell barrier polymers
  • Companies involved in the design and construction of process plants that manufacture barrier polymers, and those who service these plants
  • Financial institutions that supply money for such facilities, including banks, merchant bankers, venture capitalists, and others
  • Personnel in end-user packaging companies and industries, such as food, healthcare, and consumer and household products
  • Personnel in government at many levels, primarily federal, (such as the FDA), but also state and local health, environmental, and other regulators who must implement and enforce laws covering public health and safety, food quality, etc.


This BCC Research study provides in-depth coverage of many of the most important technological, economic, political, and environmental considerations in the U.S. barrier packaging polymer industry.  It primarily is a study of U.S. markets.  But because of the increasingly global nature of polymer and packaging chemistry it touches on some noteworthy international activities, primarily those having an impact on the U.S. market, such as imports/exports and foreign firms operating in this country.

We analyze and forecast market estimates for barrier packaging plastic resins in volume in pounds.  Our base market estimate year is 2011, and we forecast market growth for a five-year period to 2016.  All market figures are rounded to the nearest million pounds and all growth rates are compounded (signified as compound annual growth rates, or CAGRs).  Because of this rounding, some growth rates may not agree exactly with figures in the market tables; this is especially so with small volumes and their differences.  All market volumes are at the manufacturer or producer level.

This report is segmented into nine chapters, of which this introduction is the first.

The Summary encapsulates our findings and conclusions, and includes a summary table that summarizes the major barrier packaging resins.  It is the place where busy executives can find key elements of the study in summary format.

An Overview follows, starting with an introduction to the petrochemical industry, the source of all these barrier packaging polymers.  Then we discuss the plastic resin industries and focus on barrier packaging.  We conclude with a discussion of barrier packaging materials and structures, with emphasis on plastic barrier resins.  Our intent is to introduce readers to the field of polymers, barrier packaging, and barrier packaging resins.

The next chapter is the first of two devoted to market analysis.  Here, we discuss, estimate, and forecast markets for barrier packaging plastics by major resin type or class.  This discussion includes some major commodity resins, such as polyolefins, that find use as structural packaging resins; however, since these are not primarily barrier resins (and thus outside our scope) we do not attempt to estimate their wide and diffuse markets.  We start this chapter with an overall market estimate and forecast for the major types of barrier packaging resins, for base year 2011 and forecast year 2016.  Then, in each section and subsection, we describe individual barrier resin types in more detail, discuss their important applications in barrier packaging, and estimate and forecast their markets in greater detail.  The types of barrier resins that we cover and forecast include EVOH, polychlorotrifluoroethylene (PCTFE) fluoropolymer, nitrile (AN-MA) copolymers, nylons, thermoplastic (TP) polyesters, PVdC, tie-layer resins, and vapor-permeable films.

Our discussion and market analysis of vapor-permeable barrier resins and systems is included as an interesting sidelight to barrier resin chemistry, since the very term “vapor-permeable barrier” sounds like an oxymoron.  These structures are designed for selective permeation, meaning the some gases should pass through the structure but others should not.

In this “markets by resin type” chapter we also discuss some newer and more experimental or developmental barrier materials and systems, but do not try market analyses since these products still are experimental or their markets too low and/or diffuse.

The next chapter discusses and forecasts markets by barrier resin applications.  We have placed applications into three specific major groups: food (by far the largest segment), chemical and industrial products, and healthcare products packaging.

The next chapter is devoted to technology, starting with some basic plastic resin chemistry, manufacture, and properties of plastics used in barrier packaging.  Next, we go to polymerization technologies.  We then cover other important aspects of polymer technology including fabrication of rigid and flexible structures, polymer orientation, barrier technology, some competing barrier materials, food processing and packaging and additional new developments in barrier packaging.  One of the most important more recent developments has been work on ways to increase the barrier properties of PET, primarily the attempt to develop a really good PET-based barrier plastic beer bottle.

The next chapter covers the barrier packaging resin industry structure, with emphasis on major domestic producers and suppliers, horizontal and vertical integration, market and product entry and differentiation factors, and other topics.  Compounders, converters, and molders are important links in the plastics production chain.  We briefly discuss and analyze some international aspects of the barrier resin business, including its global nature, major foreign-owned supplier companies that operate in the United States, and imports and exports.

The next chapter is devoted to some environmental, regulatory, and public policy issues that affect barrier plastic packaging.  These include waste disposal and recycling, federal laws and regulations, and the all-important public perceptions of plastics and plastic packaging.

Our last narrative chapter consists of profiles of many supplier companies that BCC Research considers to be among the most important and/or best representatives of this business.

The Appendix is a glossary of some important terms, abbreviations, acronyms, etc. used in the chemical, polymer, and packaging industries.

We note again that some topics and materials covered in the text of this report are not included in our market estimate and forecast tables.  We include these topics and materials for completeness.  However, they either are really outside the market scope of this study (such as natural film, cellophane, and some oxygen scavengers), too new to have yet developed a measurable commercial market (such as some nonpolymeric barrier coatings and films), or whose markets are too large and diffuse to forecast the barrier segment with any certainty (such as the use of polyolefins in barrier packaging as structural and secondary barriers).  We include these materials and concepts to give the reader as complete coverage as possible, not only of new developments in barrier packaging plastics, but also other materials than can extend shelf life and/or otherwise affect markets for barrier resins.

For consistency in style and format, registered trade names are usually indicated by capitalizing the initial letter of the name; generic names are lowercase.  Because many chemical names are long and complicated, we often use abbreviations, acronyms, or chemical formulae.  Many of these, such as HDPE, PVC, PVdC, PCTFE, etc., represent common polymers.

All chemical elements and compounds can be designated by chemical symbols and formulae.  After introducing the element or compound, we often use symbols such as HCl for hydrochloric acid or hydrogen chloride.  Our glossary at the end of this report contains definitions and explanations of many of the most important abbreviations and acronyms.


Our scope is restricted to those synthetic barrier resins that are used to prevent infiltration or exfiltration of gases.  These primarily are oxygen and water vapor (moisture) barriers, but also in some applications are carbon dioxide (CO2) barriers, as in carbonated beverage packaging.  Some in the trade consider oxygen permeability to be the only really important barrier parameter.  This is based on the importance of an oxygen barrier to retard food spoilage.  However, BCC Research also considers water vapor transmission to be another important barrier parameter.  This is because of its importance in some critical applications such as packaged pharmaceuticals and dry food products.  For example, bread-type products must be protected from moisture, lest they turn moldy.  And, as noted, a CO2 barrier is important for preserving carbonation.

Other barriers are noted and discussed in several places; for example, barriers to other gases, including hydrocarbon vapors (because of the increasing importance of barrier in automotive gasoline tanks to cut down on hydrocarbon vapor exfiltration); and to light, odor, flavor, etc.  However, because these latter applications are so spotty and difficult to quantify (and also because these effects often are masked by, or included in other barrier effects), we do not attempt to separately quantify their markets.  The only exception is barrier gasoline tanks.  Plastic packaging barrier structures examined and discussed include both rigid and flexible, monolayer, and multilayer.

We also include and estimate markets for two types of so-called vapor-permeable or selective barrier films that allow relatively high transfer of gases through them.  These are so-called “breathable” films such as PVC for meat packaging and DuPont’s Tyvek brand of spun-bonded polyolefin, and controlled or modified-atmosphere packaging (CAP/MAP) permeable films for food packaging.

Since the scope of this study is determined by our definition of what constitutes a barrier resin, we define some terms here in the introduction.  Based on its oxygen or moisture permeability or gas transmission rate, BCC Research considers a barrier resin to be one that has the following permeability characteristics:

  • Oxygen: A resin with permeability to oxygen (measured as oxygen transmission rate or OTR) of less than 2 grams or ml/mil thickness/100 sq. inches in a 24 hour day at one atmosphere pressure; this is often shown as gm or ml/mil/100 sq. in./day.  Most OTRs are measured at 73ºF and relative humidity (RH) specified for the particular conditions.  Many older resins can achieve an OTR of 5, but most modern barrier resins have values of 1.0 or lower.  For example, standard metallized PET films have an OTR of about 0.3 or lower.  We consider any material with an OTR below 0.1 to be a high-barrier material; these include PVdC and EVOH.  Others are called moderate barriers.
  • Water (moisture) vapor: A resin with a water vapor transmission rate (WVTR) lower than 0.10.  We define and classify moisture barrier polymer structures as do experts in the pharmaceutical blister packaging industry.  That is, very low barrier films have a WVTR greater than 0.10, low-barrier WVTRs are 0.06 to 0.1, intermediate barrier 0.03 to 0.06, and high-barrier films have WVTR values of 0.03 or lower.  WVTRs of 1.0 have been available for years with many resin films.  The best and current moisture-barrier film, PCTFE, has WVTR values lower than 0.03 for most structures and it is the only true high-moisture-barrier film resin.  WVTR is usually determined under conditions of 100ºF and 90% RH (quite stringent conditions but not all that unusual in many parts of the U.S., including many bathrooms where medicines are often kept).
  • One major caveat should be stated here.  Gas permeability and other barrier properties can shift as a result of a number of variables.  These include ambient conditions (particularly temperature and humidity), exact grade of barrier plastic, particular packaging structure (including other materials, tie layers, adhesives, etc.), processing conditions, and operations performed by the processor or end user such as retort or hot-fill packaging.  Thus, gas permeability figures really are a range of values, which can vary by an order of magnitude or more for the same resin.  The reader should keep these variations in mind when studying tables of gas permeabilities later in this report.


Extensive searches were made of the literature and the Internet, including many of the leading trade publications as well as technical compendia and government publications.  Much product and market information was obtained whenever possible from principals involved in the industry.  Information for our corporate profiles was obtained primarily from the companies, especially larger, publicly owned firms.  Other sources included directories, articles, and Internet sites.



Dr. J. Charles Forman is a research analyst for BCC Research covering polymers and chemicals.  His work in industry included 21 years at Abbott Laboratories in R&D and manufacturing management.  Dr. Forman has researched and written more than 50 multiclient market research reports on a variety of subjects ranging from building construction materials and spectroscopy, to several studies on plastic packaging.  He has been writing for BCC Research for over 15 years.  His educational credentials include an S.B. from MIT and M.S. and Ph.D. from Northwestern University, all in chemical engineering.  He is also a licensed Professional Engineer (P.E.)


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This publication provides informative material of a professional nature.  It does not constitute managerial, legal, or accounting advice, nor should it serve as a corporate policy guide or an endorsement of any given product or company.  This information is intended to be as accurate as possible at the time it was written and was undertaken on a best-effort basis.  The views expressed are those of the author and do not make any warranty, express or implied, for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the information, or for the interpretation of data or its use by others.  Projections involve risks and uncertainties that include but are not limited to technical risks associated with technology development, government regulatory approvals, and access to capital.  The author assumes no responsibility for any losses or damages that may result from one’s reliance on this material.

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