Flexible Packaging & the Environment

First Published: March 15, 2024

Flexible packaging is ubiquitous today, used for everything from food and beverages to household items and consumer goods. The benefits of flexible plastic pouches, bags, and wraps are numerous – they are lightweight, take up minimal space, preserve freshness, and prevent food waste. But what is the environmental toll of this convenient packaging?

The Pros of Flexible Packaging

One of the biggest advantages flexible packaging has over rigid alternatives like glass, metal, or thicker plastic is its low carbon footprint in manufacturing and transportation. Flexible packaging is typically made from thin layers of plastic resins and aluminum foil, using far less material than jars or bottles. This lighter weight translates directly into reduced greenhouse gas emissions from production and freight shipping.

Additionally, the ease of transport and storage of flexible packaging indirectly cuts emissions by maximizing transport efficiency and warehouse space utilization. Some lifecycle analysis studies have suggested that the carbon footprint of a product’s packaging can be 10 times higher than that of the product itself when using rigid containers versus flexible pouches.

Flexible packaging also plays a major role in extending product shelf life and preventing food spoilage. An estimated 30-40% of the food supply is wasted, and good packaging is crucial to reducing this waste. With its excellent barrier properties against oxygen, moisture, and light, flexible packaging helps maintain quality and freshness.

In many cases, the use of flexible packaging also enables smaller package sizes, another factor in reducing food wastage.

The Cons – Recycling Challenges

Despite its benefits, the recycling challenges for multi-material flexible packaging have been a major environmental issue. Most flexible packaging contains layers of different plastic polymers along with aluminum and adhesive layers. This complex composition is what makes flexible packaging perform so well, but has also made it very difficult (if possible at all) to recycle through conventional municipal systems.

Because of this, the majority of flexible plastic packaging ends up in landfills, incineration facilities or just thrown on the ground. Although modern sanitary landfills are designed to minimize environmental impact, plastic packaging can still take centuries to decompose fully. Incineration of plastics, while an option for recovering energy value, can potentially release toxic emissions including dioxins.

Industry Response and the Future

In response to public backlash and sustainability initiatives, the flexible packaging industry has intensified efforts to improve recycling streams and develop environmentally friendly solutions. Major companies have joined coalitions like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which aims to “collectively broaden the recovery and recycling of packaging materials.”

New sorting processes and recycling facilities designed specifically for multi-layer flexible packaging are starting to emerge. Some facilities use special inks or polymer tracer systems to better identify different packaging layers for separation and processing.

The industry is also developing alternative materials for flexible packaging, such as recyclable mono-material pouches made from a single polymer. Bio-based compostable packaging from renewable plant sources offers another potential substitute for traditional petroleum-based plastics.

As public demand for eco-friendly packaging grows, the flexible packaging industry will face increasing pressure to continue advancing its environmental stewardship. While flexible packaging provides undeniable benefits, its long-term viability will hinge on successfully boosting recycling rates and pursuing sustainable material development.

Further Reading

How Mono-Materials Help Recycling

The Recycling Challenge of Coffee Bags

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