As the country and the world continue to work towards decreasing pollution and reducing the carbon footprint, producers of flexible packaging need to be responsive to how it is perceived. Being able to recycle packaging is becoming more and more important to consumers. At the same time, consumers continue to want convenience and safety for their packaged goods, as well as freshness.
But what is sustainable packaging? SustainablePackaging.org offers this definition: Sustainable Packaging:
- Is beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle
- Meets market criteria for both performance and cost
- Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy
- Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials
- Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
- Is made from materials that are healthy throughout the life cycle
- Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy
- Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles.
Just how committed to greener packaging are U.S. consumers? McKinsey & Company did a survey in October 2020 that indicated a genuine desire for more sustainable packaging. The company found:
- Across all end-use segments, 60% to 70% of consumers said they would pay more for sustainable packaging. A willingness to pay more was relatively equally distributed across end-use segments.
- 52% of consumers said they would buy more products with sustainable packaging if those products didn’t cost more than conventionally packaged ones.
- Approximately 35% to 36% of respondents would buy additional sustainably packaged products if they were more available in stores, available for more products, and better labeled (to indicate green packaging).
Flexible packaging has many admirable attributes, not the least of which is its superior capacity to keep air and moisture out, thereby extending a product’s shelf life. That benefits both the consumer and the product’s producer. But there is more.
Packaging Strategies stated, “Flexible packaging offers many sustainability benefits throughout the entire life cycle of the package when compared to other packaging formats including lightweight/source reduction; transportation benefits due to inbound format and lightweight nature; shelf life extension; reduced materials to landfill; high product-to-package ratio; and beneficial life cycle metrics.”
Flexible packaging can also give the prospective consumer confidence about what the product looks like. The package can provide a clear window within the laminated structure, something a rigid can cannot do. So, the consumer can see not only the product but also its condition.
Consequently, the consumer will have more confidence to buy an aesthetically appealing product with superior, longer lasting freshness, and the satisfaction of knowing they are helping the environment with less debris and pollution.
From the perspective of the product’s seller, there are significant advantages to flexible packaging. Packaging Digest recently cited four benefits to the seller. Flexible packaging is:
- Shipping friendly (lightweight = more affordable than a rigid counterpart)
2. Less wasteful (significantly less plastic than rigid containers on average = more economical)
3. Appealing to consumers (great shelf-appeal, often with an eye-catching billboard effect)
4. Protective to the product (often incorporates barrier material that blocks harmful UV rays from the sun, moisture, grease, contamination and oxygen).
Of course, sustainability challenges remain in the area of material collection and curbside recycling. The use of multi-layers of materials such as films and foils in a laminate structure (which serve to give the package the necessary requirements for freshness and shelf-life extension) also add to the dilemma of how to sort these materials for acceptance into a recycling stream.
The Recycling Partnership observed in April 2021: “Film and flexible packaging is unlike other packaging when it comes to recycling. For starters, it’s not a single packaging type— the term encompasses a wide range of packaging, from polyethylene (PE) air pillows protecting e-commerce goods to heavy-duty dog food bags, to salty snack bags with a metallized inner lining. Unlike bottles and cans, film and flexible packaging cannot be recycled in your curbside recycling container. While some of these items can be returned to retailers to be recycled through store drop-off programs, most are not eligible for recycling there either.”
Another issue noted by the Partnership: “Collecting and processing film and flexible packaging through curbside recycling means nothing without end markets ready to purchase and reprocess it into new products or packaging.” The number of end markets buying this commodity is still limited, but looking ahead: “As we build the capacity of local governments to accept film and flexibles at the curb, we must also support reclaimers and end markets who will produce new products from it.”
Perfect Packaging (associated with the Flexible Packaging Association) says, “At the end of a flexible package’s life it typically sends less material to landfills than other types of packaging. This is because it is so lightweight and requires much less material than other packaging to do the same job. In the U.S., approximately 50% of flexible packaging can easily be recycled through in-store drop-off programs; others present more of a challenge with today’s technology and recycling facility infrastructure. As has happened in other markets, technical innovation comes first, and recycling needs time to catch up. Research is progressing on many fronts to develop more and better recovery and recycling solutions.”
Specifically addressing multi-material flexible films, Perfect Packaging pointed out that these contain different layers of materials (paper, plastic, film, foil, metallized or coated paper). “These carefully engineered materials provide many of the properties that consumers and businesses love—adding durability, product safety, extending product life— but their construction also makes it more difficult to recycle. Multi-materials can be beneficially reused through a waste to energy facility. This approach is used extensively in countries like Japan, but is not yet widespread in the U.S.”
If turning flexible packaging into energy in that way isn’t possible, the packaging can be designed to be biodegradable. There is a lot of talk about “biodegradable plastics,” which sounds great, but not all of them are created equal. Ecocult.com (a site devoted to sustainability in the fashion industry, observed, “The problem: It’s extremely hard to tell which of these ‘biodegradable plastic’ products are actually biodegradable, and which ones really aren’t.” The writers noted that some bio-plastics break down into smaller pieces, becoming plastic-like bits—but that’s not necessarily a good thing, as these microplastics “may be even harder to clean from our lands and waterways than whole plastic products.” And then there’s oxo-biodegradable products, which the writers note rarely even break down at all. “And others still can actually be composted, but it has to be at an industrial facility, not your backyard compost (meaning consumers are much less likely to actually get that good to the necessary location where it can be broken down properly).”
That said, many new alternative materials promote the concept of recycling and reusability, thus reducing landfill deposits. Successfully sourcing these alternative materials in a way that is acceptable to current recycling methods of collection requires exceptional care. Ideally, in order to maintain a high degree of control over the quality of products created, packaging producers should closely monitor each step of flexible packaging production in-house, from design to finished goods. By taking responsibility for every step in the flexible packaging production process, producers can take note of opportunities for innovation as they arise. At the same time, they enhance their brand as they position themselves as industry experts
The future of sustainability in flexible packaging has many avenues to pursue, but the outlook is open and bright. Consumers want sustainable packaging. Quite clearly, the benefits outweigh the negatives. Combined with research and development of better more acceptable materials for recycling or compostability, and industry revised standards for sorting and collecting, the flexible packaging market will continue to thrive and grow. End users will benefit from the many advantages to such packaging. Society will win with a cleaner environment.