What’s Next for Flexible Packaging?

Flexible packaging is produced from paper, plastic, film, aluminum foil, or any combination of those materials, and includes bags, pouches, labels, liners, wraps, rollstock, and other flexible products.

Sustainability is on Everyone’s Mind

By Alison Keane, President and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association

The flexible packaging industry is constantly innovating. As the fastest-growing segment of the packaging industry in the U.S. and number one globally; the industry is striving to meet our customers’ demands for sustainability and circularity. This is also being driven by policy. So, what is next in flexible packaging?

We asked our members to weigh in recently and both suppliers (film, paper, foil) and converters ranked sustainability as their third most important issue behind workforce and supply chain issues, which affect all U.S. manufacturing, and is not limited to packaging or the flexible packaging in particular. So, sustainability is on everyone’s mind.

Thus, this year, in the Flexible Packaging Association’s (FPA) “State of the U.S. Flexible Packaging Industry” survey, the association asked respondents about what emerging formats and materials were being used today to satisfy the sustainability drive.

Through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) Global Commitment, consumer product companies have committed to making 100% of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Recycle-ready materials are a top priority

Coming in at number one was mono-material recycle-ready packages, with 88% of respondents stating they were manufacturing that packaging today. Post-consumer recycled content (PCR) and bio-based material packaging came in second and third, with 63% and 38% respectively. Reuse/refill systems and compostable packaging came in at a tie for fourth, with 25% of converters manufacturing each today.

Going forward, when asked what importance these formats and materials would have over the next 5 years, with 5 being extremely important; 3 moderately important; and 1 not important; recycle-ready and PCR again came in on top, bio-based and compostable coming in third and fourth, and reuse/refill systems coming in fifth. However, four out of five materials and formats ranked between moderately important or extremely important, and reuse/refill systems ranked close to moderately important with a rating of 2.6.

To achieve the next level of sustainability – the answer is an investment in the collection, processing, and end-markets for flexibles.

Modernizing the U.S. recycling system is next

There are many drivers to sustainability, none the least of which is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) Global Commitment, where consumer product companies have committed to making 100% of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

As flexible packaging’s portfolio is heavily vested in food (68%) and medical (14%) packaging, the industry has the farthest to go to reach that commitment. The EMF’s 2022 report on flexible packaging concedes that direct elimination of unnecessary packaging, its first line of defense, is only applicable to 5 to 10% of flexible packaging’s portfolio.

The EMF states that “it is currently not possible to completely move away from single-use flexible packaging without negative unintended consequences.” That is because flexible packaging is already highly sustainable. The only way to keep the current sustainability benefits of flexible packaging and to achieve full circularity is an investment in modernizing the U.S. recycling system.

Policy is now leaning this way as well. While FPA is still fighting some bans on flexible packaging, we are also now seeing more thoughtful approaches to packaging legislation. FPA supports well-crafted extended producer responsibility to subsidize the investment needed for flexibles to be included. Innovation, even to mono-material, paper, or compostable structures will not fully get us to the next level – the answer is an investment in the collection, processing, and end-markets for flexibles – that is what’s next.

About the Author

Alison Keane is the President and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association. The FPA has served as the voice of the flexible packaging industry since 1950, connecting, advancing and leading the flexible packaging industry. Learn more at www.flexpack.org

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