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Benefits and Challenges of Flexible Packaging Debated at SPE Conference

In many respects, flexible packaging has a smaller environmental footprint than other formats, but recyclability remains a stumbling block.

Clare Goldsberry

September 30, 2020

3 Min Read
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Image: Jane/Adobe Stock

Flexible packaging has been successful at replacing other formats because it uses less energy and has a smaller environmental impact in many respects. However, it’s difficult to recycle standard films, and multi-layer packaging poses even greater problems. That’s how Terence A. Cooper, CEO of Argo Group International, opened the daylong online conference hosted this week by SPE’s Recycling Division.

Flexible packaging gets bad press because it has high visibility in the environment, even though it uses less material than rigid packaging, said Cooper. This segment needs improvement through enhanced recycling technologies and better design, for example by replacing multi-layer barrier film with mono-material structures using coated barrier systems. (Indeed, PlasticsToday reported yesterday on a breakthrough technology developed by Amcor and Nestlé — the world’s first fully recyclable flexible retort pouch.)

Cooper also made the point that we have to ensure that flexible packaging is recycled, and not just recyclable. “Recycling flexible packaging is difficult because layers of different materials are all chemically different and can’t be chemically recycled,” said Cooper, noting that there are compatibilizers available that make it possible to reprocess the materials back to a polyolefin recycling stream.

Cooper mentioned numerous companies that are currently involved in chemical recycling technologies, such as depolymerization and pyrolysis, that are achieving a high level of success. He noted P&G’s Purecycle plant in Ironton, OH, that came online about three years ago and is now sold out of material for the next 20 years. He also mentioned Carbios, Enerkem, Eastman, GreenMantra, and more currently making advances in these technologies.

To demonstrate the durability of flexible packaging, Eric Klingerberg, Materials Science Program Leader for Mars Advanced Research Institute, began his presentation with a photo of a 33-year-old Mars candy wrapper that washed up on a beach in England. In his presentation, “Tomorrow Starts Today: Rethinking Packaging for a Circular Economy,” Klingenberg provided insights into what the family-owned company is doing to remain true to its commitment to transition to 100% reusable, recyclable, and compostable packaging and to decrease its use of virgin plastic use by 2025. “We’ve committed to think beyond quarterly results to the world we want tomorrow,” he stated. “We have to think and act differently — go beyond recyclability and sustainability to bold and novel breakthrough solutions.”

Klingenberg pointed out the benefits of flexible packaging, including its light weight, durability, and quality. He then noted some of the alternatives being offered by the plastics industry.

Regarding biodegradability, he asked, “Is it a solution or another problem? Companies come to us with biodegradable additives to test but we’re approaching this very cautiously. We can’t control where it degrades and what it might biodegrade to.”

Composting — organic recycling — is another alternative, and while it works well with food waste in the compost, plastic packaging is a contaminant in most composting facilities.

“PHAs are a compelling option, but still a challenge. We will not use oxy-degradable additives, as they cause fragmentation, not degradation,” said Klingenberg. “We need the properties plastic packaging offers. We can’t sacrifice properties just for biodegradability. Companies are promoting a lot of different additives and we’re trying to understand these options, but we’ll be very cautious. We don’t control the environment, and specific conditions required for degradation might not be available in all regions.”

Klingenberg reminded attendees that dealing with plastic packaging waste involves more than just “technical solutions,” noting that Mars is also looking at ways to reduce its packaging. “Social change is also required to collect more packaging,” he added.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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