Landmark Industry Study Highlights Gaps along the Righteous Path
Turning fierce competitors into reliable allies and partners is much easier said than done in today’s global economy, but no one ever said that achieving full sustainability and circularity in the flexible packaging industry was going to be easy or cheap.
Until recently, though, determining just how difficult and costly meeting this challenge will be has been largely a matter of speculation and conjecture, fueled by strong emotion but short on credible statistics and helpful advice on how to make flexible packaging a driving force for packaging sustainability, rather than a major obstacle to it.
For a packaging format that has been around a relatively short time—compared to paper, glass, metal and rigid plastic—the amount of controversy and hostility that flexible packaging has generated in recent years is in many ways a natural outcome of the sector’s complacency in improving its environmental profile over time, relying instead on pointing the finger back at competing packaging formats and their respective shortcomings.
In this light, it feels only right to commend the U.S.-based industry group Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) for the wealth of credible statistics, research findings, thoughtful analysis and, above all, helpful guidance contained in a new landmark study titled “The Path of Flexible Packaging to a Circular Economy”.
Released at the end of last year, the 200-page report is not exactly light reading by any stretch, but it should be a must-read for any flexible packaging business concerned about the industry’s long-term viability.
Packed with valuable insights and information related to flexible packaging and sustainability and Circular Economy, the FPA report identifies a series of interconnected gaps that currently prevent flexible packaging from breaking away from its stereotyped image of a reckless global polluter, including:
- Development of high barrier monomaterial (or polyolefin-based) structures;
- Lack of consistent recovery systems/rules across the country (namely in the U.S.);
- Lack of collection infrastructure for flexible packaging;
- Limited value of flexible packaging that is collected today due to a lack of end market applications and demand;
- Value of PCR (post-consumer recycled) vs. virgin material today in price and performance;
- Need for infrastructure funding to support collection, sortation, reprocessing, and end markets;
- Lack of “ownership” by any one entity for the recovery infrastructure, resulting in a lack of overall action;
- Consumer education on the value of flexible packaging, along with recycling options.
Faced with these challenges, its is really no surprise that only four per cent of all the flexible packaging consumed in the U.S. is currently recycled, according to FPA, which cites the lack of infrastructure as the most problematic impediment to higher recycling rates.
It is all fine and dandy for individual producers to placate the public with pledges to make all their packaging recyclable and compostable by 2025, which seems to be the most popular target date at the moment, but it’s really all wasted effort if there are no facilities and technologies in place to process the new-generation of earth-friendlier bags, pouches, labels, liners, wraps, rollstock and other flexible products.
As FPA states, “There are substantial challenges in driving flexible packaging toward a circular economy which will require significant investment and a shift toward system understanding and collaboration.
“The initial investment in collection, sortation, and reprocessing will likely be geared toward rigid packaging because of its greater ease of collection, as well as stronger end markets,” the report notes.
“However, much of the infrastructure and technology investment needed to make rigid collection more efficient will also apply to flexible packaging. It is critical that the industry collaborate with others and ensure that the sustainability benefits already achieved through flexible packaging are further enhanced as it strives to embed itself into a circular economy framework.”