Flexible Packaging: A More Sustainable Future
Consumers and brand owners love flexible packaging. Consumers prefer flexible pouches and bags to traditional bottles and containers because flexible packages are easy to open, easy to transport, and easy to store. Brand owners favor them for similar reasons: The flexible layers that make the package more versatile can be dropped, squashed, and twisted while keeping their protective form. In this way, transporting flexibly-packaged products becomes much safer and much less expensive.
Flexible packages, however are not merely convenient from a sales standpoint. On average, flex pouches use 60% less plastic and are 23% lighter compared to customary rigid packaging. Not only does this lower production costs, this material reduction also means less waste at the end of the package’s life. In this day and age, consumers are more likely to purchase environmentally-friendly products, and flexible packaging has the potential to become one of the most sustainable packaging designs.
In addition, flexible plastic pouches are more than just travel-ready and durable. Their foldable nature makes them much more efficient to transport, saving fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. “It takes 26 truckloads of unfilled glass jars compared to one truckload of unfilled flexible pouches to transport packaging for equal amounts of product.”
Based on its unique attributes, pouch packaging has proven to be an advantageous choice for companies, and with continued enhancements, pouches will only become even more beneficial in the future. On a global scale, the pouch market is expected to grow 6.2 percent per year through 2018, reaching $37.3 billion, according to the Freedonia Group Inc’s 2015 study.
Due to high polymer prices and environmental pressures, flexible packages with thinner films continue to hit the shelves. There isn’t just less packaging, either; there is also a decrease in food waste with pouch packaging. Advancements in the layers’ composition have led to enhanced barrier properties, thus increasing the shelf life of the product over the entirety of the supply chain. Oftentimes, flexible pouches make it is easier to get more product out versus other forms of packaging, ensuring that more food is used instead of being thrown away. In general, they also tend to have a higher proportion of product to packaging than rigid packaging.
Traditionally the downside of flexible packaging has been the lack of recyclability. Since a lot of this packaging is multilayered with high-barrier materials, there isn’t a closed-loop system in place to handle the recycling of these packages. Another challenge facing recyclers is the food contamination. Some 80% of post consumer flexible packs are unsuited to go into their recycling stream due to contamination.
Thankfully, things have recently started to change. Innovations like Dow Chemical Co.’s RecycleReady Technology and Printpack’s single material structure have focused industry efforts to make flexible pouch packaging more sustainable. For the first time the industry is seeing a breakthrough in flexible packaging technology that is recyclable. This is a win for converters looking to meet sustainability claims, brand owners or retailers interested in going green, and consumers who want to participate in a recycling program. Many grocery stores, home centers, and department stores now offer containers for recycling plastic shopping bags, and even a wide variety of films, wraps, and other plastic bags be discarded there.
When considering any new packaging format, it is important for packaging engineers to consider environmental impacts from a lifecycle perspective. With lite LCA tools like COMPASS or EcoImpact, professionals in the packaging supply chain can benchmark current packaging designs, evaluate tradeoffs, and make informed decisions that will help guide them through their journey to sustainability.