The future of flexible plastics depends on educating consumers about its sustainability

In April, the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA; Annapolis, MD) released a report providing a holistic view of the sustainability benefits flexible packaging offers. The report highlights six life-cycle assessment (LCA) case studies using EcoImpact-Compass LCA software, which allows for quick life-cycle comparisons between different package formats. Recently, the FPA boiled down the report into a consumer-friendly, two-page fact sheet with images and graphics.

FPA sustainability fact sheetGiven that there is a lot of emotion swirling around plastics and packaging, some say that trying to sell the science to the average person is futile, since the negative reporting that most people hear is so ubiquitous. But Alison Keane, FAP President and CEO, noted that “science is on our side. The new fact sheet offers information that consumers can absorb right away.”

The fact sheet was created from the report released in April, A Holistic View of the Role of Flexible Packaging in a Sustainable World, prepared for the FPA by PTIS LLC. It shows the life-cycle advantages of flexible packaging in comparison with rigid packaging. The fact sheet highlights the following:

  • Carbon impact—a rigid PET container for laundry detergent pods emits +726% more greenhouse gases than a flexible pouch with zipper;
  • water and fossil fuel usage;
  • material going to landfill—+31% more thermoformed tubs for baby food packaging ends up in a landfill compared to a flexible pouch with fitment;
  • product-to-package ratio—a single-serve, flexible juice pouch efficiently uses packaging with a product-to-package ratio of 97%.

The flexible packaging sustainability benefits outlined in the fact sheet also include material/resource efficiency; lightweight/source reduction; food shelf-life extension; transportation benefits; and a reduction in materials going to landfill.

“At the end of the day, lightweighting is winning,” said Keane. “There is less energy use due to less weight. But we need to get consumers to recycle more—not just traditional recycled materials but plastic materials that can be recycled through in-store drop-off programs. In the end, however, even plastic materials that aren’t recyclable are still a better choice than alternative materials.”

The second part of FPA’s educational effort involves How2Recycle labels, which, Keane said, are a key component of recycling. “We’re in between the consumer and the product manufacturer,” Keane said. “We need to make it as easy as possible for people to recycle or compost. If part of the package is recyclable and the rest isn’t, we need to do a better job of letting people know how to recycle what is recyclable. We have to make it easy for people.” 

Municipal governments are looking at recycling infrastructure, and Keane sees this as an opportunity for plastics. “Is energy recovery the way to go? Maybe we invest in infrastructure that we’ve not invested in for a long time,” she said. “We’ve come so far in packaging maybe we need to update the infrastructure to meet the recycling or composting needs of the new packaging technologies.

"We know that people still want to recycle and we’re trying to get the multi-laminate or barrier pouches into the recycling infrastructure. Just making something compostable when there is no composting infrastructure that will take it means that it’s still going into the trash,” Keane added.

FPA is launching a new website that is more consumer facing, has more graphics and quick hits, and uses science to tell the story to consumers. Keane hopes that will encourage people to educate others in their families and community about the science of plastics, including the benefits of using flexible plastics in various applications versus alternative materials.

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