Flexible packaging is more sustainable than people realize

Recycling binsFlexible packaging shows up in thousands of applications in our daily lives, but a lot of that packaging also shows up floating in our oceans and rivers. What can the industry do to improve flexible packaging’s image? Put it into context, which is what Diego Donoso, President, Packaging & Specialty Plastics Division, at Dow Chemical Co., did during a presentation at the recent SustPack 2017 event in Scottsdale, AZ. Flexible packaging is “inherently more sustainable and uses less energy” than many other forms of packaging, noted Donoso. “However, the same qualities that make it desirable become a challenge when looking at end-of-life recycling.”

One of the challenges stems from the lightweight properties of flexible packaging. It takes four times more pouches to achieve the volume of 100 bottles. And because of its lower density, it floats, and thus is much more visible. Donoso pointed out, using the now ubiquitous photos of plastics in our waterways, that 40% of the waste found in the oceans and rivers is not plastic, and 80% of ocean trash comes from land-based sources, mainly in the Asia-Pacific region.

“What’s at the bottom of the ocean?” he asked, noting that other types of trash are heavy and sink. “This affects the reputation of all of us.”

Donoso outlined four things that are necessary for flexible packaging to gain a better reputation: Increase waste collection; embrace technology; educate and engage consumers; and create new opportunities for recycled flexible packaging.

“As demand for flexible goes up, the response of the industry has gone up, too,” said Donoso.  “We need to influence human behavior and we need to increase the recovery of flexible packaging.”

Donoso pointed to Dow’s introduction of a new flexible packaging technology called Retain Polymer Modifier that “compatibilizes” materials. “With the development of Retain Polymer Modifiers, a set of distinctive functional polymers, these problems are being successfully addressed, and the sustainability benefits and exceptional economies of recycling barrier scrap into high-quality films can be realized,” said Dow’s information. Retain Polymer Modifier results in better processability as well as better optical properties, “two critical performance requirements for many converters.”

Value chain cooperation in the recycling process is also key as recyclers need scale and volume. That requires a municipal waste system for collecting and sorting plastic film. New ideas for non-recycled plastics are underway, such as the Hefty Energy Bag program referenced by Donoso. The program provides special plastic bags for previously non-recycled plastics, which are filled by consumers and collected curbside and converted into valuable energy. In Omaha, the bags are taken to a waste-to-energy facility to provide energy for a cement plant.

Donoso noted that in Germany only 2% of solid waste goes into landfills because recycling and waste-to-energy are the primary methods of disposal. Non-recycled plastic film can be turned into synthetic fuel oil, Donoso pointed out. “We still use landfills in the United States, but landfilling should only be used as a last resort, not a first,” said Donoso.

“Plastic is under attack and plastic bag bans are increasing,” he concluded. “Dow is committed to cutting waste to landfills by half by 2025.”

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