16 August 2022
Flexible packaging has become synonymous with the packaging industry’s negative impact on the environment, but is flexible packaging as bad as it’s made out to be?
Defined as packaging whose shape can easily be changed or altered. Expected to cross $390 billion by 2028 and as the largest segment of the packaging industry (19% in the US alone) flexible packaging holds a lot of importance and power when it comes to leading the way with sustainable changes. Despite popular opinion flexible packaging can be recycled and contribute to a circular economy, it just has to be done effectively. It is a market that impacts everything – and here’s how it can be more sustainable.
Although flexible packaging is associated more with the food industry (the food industry accounts for 52% of all flexible packaging shipments) it is part of most sectors and contributes significantly to packaging in general. Forecasted to grow annually by 5% from 2022 to 2028 it’s a section of packaging that is only going to get bigger, more lucrative and more political. So it’s important that sustainable measures are taken and materials are more ethically produced, disposed of and reused. Demands within e-commerce, convenience food and easily accessible products with a long shelf life means that flexible packaging is only going to get bigger.
The flexible packaging industry provides approximately 79,000 jobs in the US alone across 950 manufacturing facilities. For manufacturing and distribution the largest markets are Asia and North America – COVID created a dip in the market that almost brought the entire packaging industry to an complete halt (now thanks to online shopping it’s picking up again). The biggest market for flexible packaging is found in the Asia Pacific region. Trends such as e-commerce, digital printing and sustainability have been used to drive growth and create new opportunities. More than 60% of Americans are happy to pay more for tangible and functional packaging benefits. This is part of the reason that flexible packaging will continue to grow and why it is so critical that the market finds ways to appeal to businesses while evolving sustainable solutions.
Flexible packaging that you encounter daily is made from low density polyethylene, the qualities of this material make it very flexible, thin and translucent. This means that they are easy to reuse and usually take less time to biodegrade (though low density polyethylene isn’t corroded by acids or vegetable oils). Despite that many pieces of flexible packaging are heavily branded (packets of cereal, dog food, medicine pouches) which means that the ability to recycle them is made more difficult because of design, color palette mixes and other issues.
Although the myth that mixing materials such as bioplastics with virgin plastics is a good thing (for more information on this please see the article Beauty And The Beast: Bioplastics vs Biodegradable Plastics) it actually makes the recycling process more difficult – if not entirely void altogether – if other materials of the same makeup aren’t also recycled at the same time.
So what are the myths that are stopping flexible packaging from becoming as sustainable as it could be in the minds of consumers?
Flexible packaging is a great preservative of food and products, extending the sell-by date of food and reducing the chances of fungi and mold. Unfortunately due to the way it is thrown away and the amount that is thrown away (considering 50% of flexible packaging in the US is recyclable) flexible packaging has got a bad reputation.
Approximately 50% of flexible packaging is created from multi-material laminates and requires alternative recycling processes which make up 1.6% of the municipal solid waste stream. It can be recycled, it just isn’t widely recycled.
Flexible packaging uses resources which are already available, the use of flexible packaging could be very environmentally friendly if used in a closed loop system.
While this is true and flexible packaging makes up 1.3% (packaging) 0.03% (plastic bags) of litter, (for more information on the impact of marine litter and why packaging is having such a huge effect on the ecosystem look at the article Plenty Of Fish In The Sea: Marine Litter) and it has increased by 14% since the last time such a survey was taken, the onus is surely on the availability of recycling points and brand understanding of the materials they are using.
The environmental impact of the food industry is down to more than packaging. The food industry’s pollution issues are mainly due to the manufacturing of produce and the carbon emissions of shipping – the packaging is a small percentage though it is the most visual and therefore the one that gets the most social coverage.
Despite many issues with flexible packaging as a plastic, it is relevant in a circular economy and essential if packaging is going to have a less negative impact on the environment.
Let’s look at the facts. Compared to rigid packaging, flexible packaging uses 60% less plastic and is 23% lighter meaning that for shipping, less space is used up equating to lower carbon emissions and a cheaper overall production total for businesses. 1.5 pounds of flexible packaging will hold the same amount of product as 50 pounds of glass would. To transport equal amounts of product using flexible packaging versus glass jars equals one truckload of flexible pouches compared to 26 trucks of glass jars. Flexible packaging is very environmentally friendly in terms of production emissions and shipping efficiency and could be even more ethical if it became part of a consistent circular economy.
Flexible packaging is just one of the materials that we can use to make your dream product packaging. With sustainable non-plastic alternatives and an international sourcing network you can be sure that your packaging is our priority.