Balancing Safety and Sustainability: Flexible Packaging in a COVID-19 World

By Todd Meussling, Senior Manager Market Development at Fresh-Lock®

Packaging priorities shifted when the pandemic hit. Now companies are seeking options to balance both safety and sustainability when it comes to their packaging.

At the beginning of 2020, plastics were at the center of the sustainability conversation, facing frequent challenges of the role plastics have in packaging. However, as COVID-19 took hold across the U.S., heightened awareness of safety brought to light the necessity of plastic packaging.

As we continue to live in this “evolving normal,” brands, retailers, and packaging manufacturers continue to develop new ways to help keep consumers healthy while working to continue the sustainability initiatives their consumers are passionate about. By banding together to create safe and sustainable solutions, brands and converters can meet consumer demands as well as their own needs.

Shifting priorities during a pandemic

As consumers and brands worked to “stop the spread,” sustainability initiatives involving packaging were put on the back burner. In many cases, single-use plastics became the ONLY acceptable option in working to prevent cross contamination, and ensure product safety.

Take grocery stores as an example. Despite their rising popularity pre-COVID-19, reusable tote bags were banned by many major retailers, with single-use grocery bags regaining prominence as the safest and healthiest solution.

(Photo Provided by the Fresh-Lock Team) The pandemic brought to light the need for plastic packaging and the importance of material recovery and plastic management.

However, shifting policy and the reemergence of single-use plastics doesn’t mean consumers have stopped prioritizing sustainable products.

According to a July 2020 survey by Genomatica, 85 percent of Americans have been thinking the same or more about sustainability since the pandemic began. Additionally, the survey found that while 43 percent of respondents deem being less sustainable during the pandemic as a “necessary evil,” 43 percent of those laid off, furloughed, or having seen job disruption would still pay more for sustainable products.

Retailers, too, are again addressing their sustainability initiatives. At the onset of the pandemic, stores were solely focused on keeping products in-stock and keeping customers safe. As we adjusted to shopping in a pandemic, their sights have shifted back to growing consumer demand for sustainable products. And, as state and federal governments resume discussions around recycling and waste reduction legislation, retailers are more focused on achieving their sustainability initiatives without sacrificing product protection or safety.

The circular economy and flexible packaging

It’s evident that sustainability will continue to grow as both a consumer expectation and a retailer’s objective. This means brands must make adjustments and create packaging solutions that offer hygienic and environmentally friendly benefits. If there is anything COVID-19 has taught us, it’s that rather than looking to eliminate plastic, we need to work on managing the circularity of plastic materials. One of the most viable solutions? Flexible packaging.

Flexible packaging can offer a variety of benefits to consumers, including product protection and consumer safety. Continued advancements throughout the industry are allowing packagers to design more sustainable options within flexibles as well. We often discuss a “circular economy” when considering how flexible packaging can enter into the recyclable recovery stream, as the model clearly outlines how all parties and practices are required for success.

To begin the process, flexible packaging suppliers need to offer sustainable, and in this case, recyclable solutions. With the growth of new mono-materials for pouches, this objective is showing realization, and kick-starting the circular process. From there, brands must work to integrate the technology and educate consumers to both buy the product and take action to properly recycle the packaging.

Retailers are also a key player in the circularity of flexible packaging as they provide and promote collection points for flexibles and work with brands to educate consumers. Then recovery resources need to facilitate materials to a point where they can be converted to a usable form like resin and given a secondary life in new products. As more recyclable pouches continue to enter the market, all parties must work together and create agile strategies to help consumers embrace these new options and populate the recovery stream effectively.

Overcoming current flexible packaging challenges

Like anything worth doing, embracing sustainable packaging solutions doesn’t come without its challenges. Efforts need to be made to not only build on an infrastructure that allows consumers to easily incorporate plastics into the circular economy but also understand how to properly do so.

According to the 2020 Consumer Brands Association Reduce. Reuse. Confuse. Report, only 74% of Americans say their communities offer recycling programs, yet only 34 percent of material is recycled in the U.S. This simply isn’t enough. Across the country, infrastructure needs to grow and evolve in order to properly collect, sort, and process materials to ensure recyclable packaging is kept out of the waste stream and into the recycle stream.

(Photo Provided by the Fresh-Lock Team) Flexible packaging that utilizes compatible closures, like the Fresh-Lock® Zipper Top™ 8253 shown here, can offer a wide range of sustainability benefits.

However, issues beyond the lack of infrastructure need to be addressed. The Consumer Brands Association 2020 report also found that 25 percent of recycled materials are contaminated – much of which is caused by consumers placing the wrong items into recycling bins.

Brands can educate consumers on how to properly enter packaging into the recovery stream through efforts like the How2Recycle program. How2Recycle labels clearly outline the packaging format, packaging material, and how to prepare the item for recycling in a uniform fashion that is easy for consumers to understand.

Similarly, brands and packagers can work to educate consumers on other sustainability features flexible packaging offers beyond recyclability. When compared to rigid options, flexible packaging reduces materials used and wasted during manufacturing. Additionally, pouches offer a smaller carbon footprint during production, and the lightweight solution means less fossil fuels are consumed during transportation. Plus, with the addition of compatible, reclosable features like zippers or sliders, pouches can help to extend product life and freshness, enhancing consumer satisfaction and reducing food waste.

Starting the sustainability journey

While these challenges may seem daunting, they can be addressed with the proper partners onboard. Brands influence consumer decisions simply by offering new products, and the pandemic has taught us to think on our feet when seeking safe and sustainable solutions. Collaboration is key as packaging manufacturers, retailers, and brands partner to introduce flexible packaging options and pursue a strategy for success.

Starting small and introducing a product line extension featuring new sustainable features is a great way for brands to gauge customer responses to new products without reworking an entire brand or product portfolio. After introducing new flexible packaging solutions, brands can communicate these efforts through public relations materials, blogs, and other outlets. We know consumers actively support and seek sustainable brands, meaning these efforts can directly lead to more money in your innovation pipeline.

Consumer brands and major retailers carrying their products can create and promote in-store programs that help packaging enter the recovery stream. It’s vital that these programs are accessible to consumers and offer an easy-to-understand process.

Collectively, we can continue to adjust to this “evolving normal” and find solutions that offer consumers a safe yet sustainable option. While we may need to remain socially distanced, by combining efforts and creating partnerships to pursue environmentally sound solutions, the packaging industry will exceed consumer expectations despite the challenges of COVID-19.

About the Author

Todd Meussling is the Fresh-Lock® senior manager for market development. The Fresh-Lock® brand is the market leader in press-to-close zipper and track and slider reclosable solutions for flexible packaging. Fresh-Lock® products are designed and produced by Presto Products, a business of Reynolds Consumer Products.

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