Advancing the Promise of Monomaterial Flexible Packaging
Keeping promises in the times of nasty surprises and epic disruptions can be an arduous task—especially for the multitude of flexible packaging manufacturers and end users who have made emphatic pronouncements about making their packaging fully compliant with the Circular Economy principles by the end of this decade.
But as the evidence of growing plastic pollution continues to mount in the planet’s waterways and on the beaches in unsightly heaps of callously discarded plastic trash, packaging suppliers worldwide are quickly finding out that time is not on their side.
It is one of the industry’s greatest ironies that one of flexible packaging’s greatest technological feats—the combining different substrates into one uniform structure offering multiple shelf-life and protective barrier benefits—may be its greatest undoing due to the inability of mechanical recycling systems to manage this global waste stream effectively.
While it remains to be seen whether the new-generation advanced (chemical) recycling technologies can ultimately help resolve this challenging paradox, there is a sense of heightened urgency in industry circles towards reverse-engineering the existing structural complexity back to its basics, while retaining the benefits.
According to a new industry report by Chicago-based market research firm PreScouter, the switch to monomaterial packaging is quickly gathering steam in face of aggressive government regulations and looming EPR (extended producer responsibility) directives aimed at drastic reduction in the amount and types of plastics consumer goods companies use for their products. Released at the end of last year, the Monomaterial Packaging report makes a compelling case why monomaterials are bound to become the future of flexible packaging, if flexible packaging is to have a long-term future.
“Monomaterial packaging has become a buzzword in the packaging industry, particularly in the flexible packaging sector, and will play a significant role in supporting a Circular Economy across sectors,” the report states.
“The current flexible packaging sector depends on multi-material packaging, which is difficult to recycle.
“Such materials can be mechanically recycled, but given the different materials involved, the resulting material is of low quality,” the study points out. “Hence, multi-materials are not recycled or could potentially be chemically recycled, which is a more complex and less desirable route from a sustainability point of view.”
According to the report’s authors, “Monomaterial packaging can be designed to be fully recyclable as all layers are made of the same type of plastic, leading to cleaner recycling streams and contributing to the Circular Economy.
“For instance, there is potential to replace metallized flexible packaging, which contains an inseparable thin layer of aluminum, making it problematic in the recycling process.”
But before that happens, there are some serious technical challenges and limitations that need be resolved. According to PreScouter, these include heat-sealability; adhesion; printability; achieving high transparency; surface enhancement; food contact compliance; increasing stiffness; and the reduction of used material, without reducing productivity.
While it looks like a daunting multipronged challenge, many of the world’s leading flexible packaging producers—including SABIC, Mondi, Huhtamaki and Klöckner Pentaplast, among others—already have commercially available monomaterial solutions that brand owners can start using today. What’s really missing right now is the sheer volume and a broader range of applications for these solutions to become standardized all over the world.
While no one says it will be easy, worthy noble causes rarely are.
And as PreScouter report points out: “In terms of ESG goals, companies who have adopted monomaterial packaging report are achieving a lower carbon footprint and less use of resources such as water.” Truer words rarely better spoken.