Activists criticize it. Environmentalists decry it. Recyclers fear it. Consumers question it. Anyway you look at it, flexible packaging takes the heat. But is all this criticism justified? No. Flexible packaging offers many benefits, and those all-important benefits are often overlooked when we see a used package in our trash containers.

The Environmental Case for Flexible Packaging

As with other types of packaging, flexible packaging offers several benefits. Flexible packaging is lightweight, it’s convenient and it’s easy to transport. It enables single-serve packaging, so our food stays fresh until we’re ready to eat it. Because it is resource efficient — a small amount of packaging can contain a large amount of product — it offers great value in use.

Specifically, it offers the “hidden” environmental benefit of using less material in the first place and saving other resources from being wasted. For example, 10oz of tortillas can be packaged in 0.2oz of flexible packaging, which is a great investment for protecting the quality and integrity of the tortillas.

Flexible packaging also lets us take fresh foods home from the store and keep them on hand for a few days or even a few weeks until we’re ready to eat them. If the tortillas in the previous example were not properly packaged and went stale before being eaten, they would be thrown away — in effect wasting the resources used to create them. Since making 10oz of tortillas requires more energy and more raw materials than making .02oz of packaging, the impact of discarding the product is greater than the impact of discarding the packaging. Using a small amount of resources to make packaging that protects a larger investment of resources makes the most sense.


Comparing Nuts to Nuts

When assessing flexible packaging against secondary criteria or attributes, such as recycled material content or recycle rate, it is important to understand why we are interested in that criteria. For example, we may want to recycle our packaging in order to reduce raw material consumption, reduce energy usage and reduce discards to a landfill. Most consumers understand intuitively that if we use less we are saving more; however, intuition can be misleading when trying to compare things that we’re not familiar with.

In addition, most consumers are unaware of the amount of energy it takes to manufacture a glass jar, metal canister or flexible plastic pouch. That being said, how can we intuitively compare different packaging types? The answer is that we can’t. Instead, it’s imperative to use scientific principles to measure the impact of our choices and employ science to make the most educated decisions.

For instance, take the example of a stand-up pouch containing salted or honey roasted nuts. A typical flexible package containing 16oz of nuts weighs about 0.4oz. The package is made of several different materials, cleverly combined into a laminate structure, with each of the packaging materials selected to provide a specific benefit. Aluminum foil or a metalized polymer film provides barrier protection; polyester provides toughness and a high-quality print surface; and polyethylene provides the sealability needed to hold the package together.

Unfortunately, because there are currently very limited options for consumer recycling of flexible packaging, it will most likely end up destined for disposal in a landfill. Finding alternatives to landfill disposal for used flexible packaging is something that leading companies and trade associations, like the Flexible Packaging Association, are working to address. But even without recycling a single package, this type of packaging can help meet sustainability goals.

So for now, let’s consider how a flexible package impacts the environment if it’s not recycled. Let’s begin by assuming that a well-intentioned person wanted to reduce resource consumption and reduce landfill discards by switching from a flexible package to a more recyclable material. Let’s say they instead selected a glass jar with a metal lid. That type of package, like the flexible package, meets all the performance requirements for protecting nuts — and product protection should be the first criteria considered when selecting a packaging material. A 16oz jar of nuts requires a total of about 11.9oz of glass for the jar, plus metal for the lid.

Now let’s assume that the glass jar is recycled at a very high — and currently unachieved — rate of 90 percent. If 90 percent of the glass jars are recycled and 10 percent are sent to a landfill, then, on average, about 1.19oz of glass will be sent to a landfill for every 16oz of nuts sold.

If every single flexible package, on the other hand, is sent to a landfill, a total of only 0.42oz of flexible packaging will be landfilled for every 16oz of nuts sold, which is nearly two-thirds less.

Therefore, although the intent was to reduce landfill discards by switching to a more recyclable container, the actual result — which is not intuitive to most consumers — is that landfill discards have actually increased when switching away from flexible packaging. This also means that more raw materials are consumed to manufacture the glass packaging. And as an added benefit, the flexible package uses only about one-sixth the amount of energy to manufacture as the glass container.

Now, this example doesn’t mean that flexible packaging is always the best choice. For some items, glass is a better choice; for others, metal is the preferred material; while for others, paper is best. But the example does demonstrate the importance of using scientific principles to determine performance.

We can’t simply rely on intuition or take a guess, because understanding sustainability performance is much too complicated and far too important for that. And for many applications, although it may not be intuitively obvious, flexible packaging may indeed offer the best overall sustainability performance.

Using scientific principles to assess performance against multiple criteria over the entire product life cycle will help us rest assured of that.

And that’s what sustainability is all about.


Editor’s Note:
This feature was adapted from Flexible Packaging’s April 2012 issue.