Sustainable Packaging is No Longer a Nice-to-have—it’s a Necessity

The flexible packaging industry is developing sustainable materials designed to conserve resources while reducing emissions and waste. © Clemency – stock.adobe.com

How CPG Brands Can Embrace Sustainability With Bio-based Flexible Packaging Solutions

Byline: Todd Meussling, Senior Manager of Market Development at Fresh-Lock®

As demand from eco-conscious consumers continues to grow alongside emerging regulatory requirements, sustainable packaging is no longer a nice-to-have—it’s a necessity. In response to the demand, many consumer-packaged goods (CPG) brands have transitioned from rigid to flexible formats and from multi-material to mono-material packaging structures. These shifts provide a multitude of sustainability benefits, such as source reduction and reducing energy consumption during transportation.

While petroleum-based polymers have served the flexible packaging industry for many years, growing concerns about the environment and awareness of greenhouse gas emissions are forcing the packaging industry to develop more sustainable alternatives. As CPG brands continue to seek emerging technologies that help minimize their environmental impact, bio-based flexible packaging is gaining traction.

Serving as a sustainable alternative to traditional plastics, bio-based materials offer opportunities for the flexible packaging industry to diminish its reliance on fossil fuels while helping to mitigate environmental harm. With availability of recyclable bio-based films and closures starting to increase, flexible pouches made from bio-based resins emerge as a comprehensive packaging solution. Not only are they sustainable, but they can also boast benefits like reclosability and durability.

The Journey from Harvest to Bio-Based Flexible Pouches

Traditional polyethylene (PE) is derived from petrochemicals like oil or natural gas, while bio-based PE is sourced from renewable plant-based materials. Although paper packaging has been a long-standing bio-based option, there’s a growing need for packaging with enhanced functionality and performance of polyethylene. Flexible packaging made with bio-based plastics can help address this need by offering features like reclosability, durability, and lightweight properties desired by both brands and consumers.

The production of bio-based PE for flexible pouches and closures begins with plants like sugarcane. After harvesting, the sugarcane is broken down and processed into bioethanol, which is then used to produce ethylene. This ethylene is further processed into polyethylene resin, creating a bio-based PE suitable for use in flexible films and closures. Despite being derived from renewable sources, these bio-based, flexible packaging components can match the performance of their fossil fuel PE counterparts, helping maintain production efficiencies for manufacturers.

Carbon Negative Packaging: The Benefit of Bio-Based Flexible Materials

Starting small, with bio-based line extensions and consumer education, can help pave the way for renewables. Image courtesy of Fresh Lock.

Bio-based flexible packaging materials mirror traditional PE characteristics, enabling disposal strategies akin to their fossil fuel-based counterparts. This versatility allows brands to transition to bio-based options while continuing to address their diverse product needs and sustainability objectives.

Although bio-based compostable options exist, recyclability remains a popular choice for many brands and, currently, the recycling infrastructure outweighs composting accessibility for many consumers. This makes recyclable, bio-based pouches a fantastic option for a sustainable solution, ensuring products can be reprocessed post-use. For products leaving residues that cannot be easily removed from the pouch’s flexible films, home compostable options provide an eco-friendly alternative, particularly as commercial compost infrastructure expands.

While efforts are underway at the consumer, brand, and government levels to help ensure eco-friendly waste management methods for flexible packaging are being followed, landfills remain a reality. © Cavan Images – stock.adobe.com

Because the materials used to produce bio-based, flexible packaging components originate from plants, which absorb carbon from the atmosphere during their growth cycle, they contribute to carbon negativity in nature. This contrasts to traditional plastics produced from fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases during extraction and production. This highlights a major advantage of bio-based materials for flexible packaging in terms of sustainability, offering promising alternatives to traditional methods.

While efforts are underway at the consumer, brand, and government levels to help ensure eco-friendly waste management methods for flexible packaging are being followed, landfills remain a reality. In scenarios where recovery streams are unavailable, misunderstood, or overlooked, a bio-based flexible pouch offers a more environmentally favorable alternative. Since the renewable source starts out carbon negative in nature, it represents a superior solution compared to traditional flexible packaging ending up in landfills.

Charting the Course: The Future of Flexible Packaging

When it comes to plastics for flexible packaging, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. With hundreds of thousands of consumer goods packaged daily, each with unique preservation, protection, and utilization needs, the flexible packaging industry is in an age of working toward sustainable solutions rapidly. For packagers, this shift entails adopting flexible packaging portfolios aimed at waste reduction, carbon emission reduction, and resource preservation.

With these goals in mind, bio-based materials offer an attractive option for flexible packaging. However, traditional petrochemical-based PE, with over 60 years of development, remains widely available and relatively inexpensive. This can make the transition to bio-based a gradual process for brands and packagers. Starting small, with line extensions and consumer education, can help pave the way. Additionally, blending bio-based materials with traditional PE can also ease the transition, such as incorporating a bio-based closure on a traditional PE pouch.

As the flexible packaging industry continues its journey toward sustainable solutions, bio-based materials are a standout choice for brands navigating their transition toward a greener future.

About the Author:

Todd Meussling is the Fresh-Lock® senior manager, market development. The Fresh-Lock® brand is the market leader in reclosable solutions for flexible packaging.

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