As Society is getting more and more concerned about the resources it uses and climate change, as well as many environmental issues, packaging, particularly flexible packaging is still at the centre of the debate. But today it is for very positive reasons.
Flexible packaging is proving to be an effective solution provider for one of the most challenging issues: food waste and loss. As 30-40% of food globally is wasted and never consumed (which is equivalent to the production of a growing area bigger than China) this is quite rightly at the top of many government and NGO agendas, including the United Nations.
Even more than other packaging types, flexible materials enable a very creative approach to packaging solutions offering customised protection and formats, portion control and longer shelf life, all of which impacts considerably to reduce food waste.
Typically flexible packaging needs less than 10% resources to protect the other circa 90% of resources related to food production and distribution. So it is fair to say that flexible packaging saves much more resources than it consumes.
One great advantage is the lightweighting offered by flexible packaging – doing same function as other packaging solutions with less material. Indeed the spin off benefits, such as less resources used to make the pack and a great deal less fuel burnt to transport them, even when filled, adds greater strength to the view that this style of pack is at the top of the sustainable performance ladder, not the bottom, as was so often perceived due to lower recycling rates for flexible packaging. Indeed, studies have shown that using flexible packaging even with zero recycling can still be more resource efficient, and with much less environmental impact, than using rigid packaging equivalents with close to 100% recycling.
Recycling solutions for flexible packaging do exist. But it starts with collection: no collection, no recycling. Where collection systems are in place, as in Germany, these packs are recycled. And many initiatives, such as CEFLEX – involving the whole supply chain from raw material suppliers to converters and brand owners as well as recyclers – are ongoing to develop sustainable flexible packaging recovery solutions.
Globally, looking at the (marine) litter issue, the first focus also needs to be on better collection systems and when collected there should be effective and relevant recovery options depending on national legislation and requirements. For example, recent initiatives are ongoing in places as diverse as South Africa and Indonesia where the industry is setting up systems to buy back the material from waste pickers. Financial incentives are, for sure, well target approach to make change to littering quickly.
The industry points to continuous market growth averaging 5% globally as proof that flexible packaging formats are increasing in popularity everywhere. One only needs to look at the huge expansion of products, both wet and dry, in pouches in every market worldwide to confirm this fact. And this is only one of many flexible packaging formats.
Overall, due to its unbeatable resource efficiency benefits, flexible packaging will be the packaging solution of tomorrow even more than today, as resources become scarcer and better collection systems evolve.
By Stefan Glimm
Stefan Glimm is an economist with over 30 years of experience working in national, European and global organizations. As a senior executive he was involved in founding today’s Flexible Packaging Europe – the association representing about 80% of flexible packaging manufacturing in Europe. Today he serves FPE as Senior Executive Advisor.