Flexible Packaging Enables Sustainability

Recyclable Mono-material is Changing the Tide in the Industry, Making Flexible Packaging a Sustainable Resource

By Ken Brunnbauer, Marketing Manager, Glenroy, Inc.

Image Courtesy of Glenroy, Inc.

If you’re familiar with flexible packaging — spouted pouches, stick packs, sachets, zipper pouches — you’ll know that it’s traditionally challenging to recycle. The main reason relates to flexible packaging’s multilayer plastic structures and the difficulty separating the various materials used in each layer at recycling facilities.

Because of this traditional approach to flexible packaging, it had been commonly thought of as “hard to recycle”. However, with the rise of consumer awareness and the commitment by brand owners to meet sustainability goals by 2025 or 2030, the tide is changing within the flexible packaging industry. It’s time to start viewing flexible packaging as a sustainability enabler and as a resource, not waste.

The value of flexible packaging

The beauty, and value, of flexible packaging has always been its ability to protect the product that is inside. By minimizing oxygen and moisture contact with the product inside, flexible packaging has the ability to extend shelf life and preserve freshness to enhance the consumer experience.

These attributes alone help to reduce food spoilage and decrease the amount of food waste in our landfills. In addition, its lighter weight when compared to glass and rigid plastic, enables it to reduce the gross weight during shipping which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use. And the production of flexible packaging is much less energy intensive than other forms of packaging, and it uses less water too.

Mono-material flexible packaging

Wait, you said “sustainability enabler” earlier? But it’s made of plastic. Yes, that is accurate. However, the way that flexible packaging is being constructed now vs. the past is vastly different. Enter, the rise of mono-material flexible packaging.

Mono-material flexible packaging is still a multi-layer structure, with the barrier protection of traditional flexible packaging, but instead of using different materials for each of the layers, it uses only one material type for each layer. In the United States, polyethylene is the material type gaining the most momentum.

By constructing flexible packaging film and pouches with a single material type (polyethylene) it is proving to be a pathway for flexible packaging to be recycled, or repurposed. This is providing the driver (or enabler) for brands to add mono-material flexible packaging formats to their portfolio that provide the product protection they need and help enable them to reach their stated sustainability goals (including plastic reduction and recyclable materials) in the coming years.

Cultivating a circular economy

The store drop-off component of the How2Recycle program allows consumers the ability to drop their empty, clean, and dry mono-material flexible packaging into the bins outside retailers throughout the U.S. Those empty packages are then sent out to be made into composite lumber, decking, or even recycled into another plastic bag. Image Courtesy of Glenroy, Inc.

The recycling and repurposing programs for flexible packaging are accelerating the realization of a true circular economy. The circularity part of “circular economy” is one where the amount of plastic produced in the first place is reduced by continually reusing materials already in use, in a continuous loop.

Awareness and education on these programs are actions that mono-material flexible packaging producers are striving to achieve every day. Programs like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle program provides clear labeling for consumers, so they know how to properly recycle the mono-material flexible packaging they use.

One of the recipients of the mono-material flexible packaging collected in the store drop-off bins is Trex. Since 1996 Trex has grown to be the world’s largest manufacturer of wood alternative products. Through their NexTrex program they have expanded their reach by working directly with communities and companies to specifically identify mono-material flexible packaging that gets sent directly to Trex for recycling and repurposing flexible packaging into their catalog of products, further enabling the circular economy.

Consumer education and awareness

Expanding consumer education and awareness will be key elements in the advancement of mono-material flexible packaging and its ability to drive the circular economy. Organizations like the Flexible Packaging Association, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, Association of Plastic Recyclers, and others work with all stakeholders that have a vested interest within the flexible packaging industry (from converters to brand owners to consumers to recyclers to government).

They are continually working with each stakeholder on educational programs and activities to increase the collective knowledge and understanding of the holistic sustainable benefits of mono-material flexible packaging, and to stay engaged with law makers to ensure that the legislation being proposed is consistent and easy to follow.

As we move closer to 2025 and 2030, which are the targets for many brands to achieve their stated sustainability goals, the acceleration of recyclable mono-material flexible packaging, the benefits it offers to brands, consumers, and the environment will only continue to increase.

As consumers become more aware and educated on the recyclability of mono-material flexible packaging, its role as a resource in the circular economy, and the holistic positive environmental benefits it possesses (from reduced plastic production in the first place to decreased plastic waste in the environment), we can only be excited about the future; a future where we address the global waste challenge one pouch at a time.

About the Author

Ken Brunnbauer is the Marketing Manage at Glenroy, Inc. Learn more by downloading the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Basics from the Flexible Packaging Association

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