Fighting the war on plastics with science and education

Fighting the war on plastics with science and education

The last several years have shown a slow but steady anti-plastic sentiment and in 2020, in the U.S., we saw several legislative initiatives that purported to curb "single-use" plastic use and waste. But 2020 has also seen a global pandemic, where single-use products and packaging, particularly in the food, health and hygiene, and personal protective equipment segments has become even more vital for consumer safety. And not all plastic is created equal, so the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) has made it one of its core missions to combat the misinformation around plastics with science and targeted education.

A recent FPA survey of consumer and brand owner perceptions of packaging sustainability revealed that in general, 86% of consumers care about sustainability, 83% say they understand the meaning of sustainability, and 65% think sustainability is at the least, a very important attribute of packaging for products sold both in-store and online. Furthermore, 82% of consumers say they care about the sustainability aspects of packaging, 79% say they prefer products that use sustainable packaging over those that do not, and 72% say they trust labels on product packaging that include sustainability benefits. Consequently, sustainable packaging matters to consumers.

The survey also found that younger generations are more likely to understand and define sustainable packaging considering all the lifecycle benefits, instead of just end-of-life benefits, such as recyclability. Millennials believe it is extremely important or absolutely essential that product packaging has a sustainable lifecycle, including that it is manufactured with less energy and has been transported efficiently. Flexible packaging, including flexible plastic, goes even further with reductions in water usage, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, product to package ratios, and materials to landfills.

In response to this, FPA developed case studies to show the difference between flexible packaging and traditional packaging regarding environmental benefits. Additionally, we launched a website,, to explain the sustainability story in a way the consumer or policymaker could easily understand the science behind innovative flexible packaging and the reason so many consumer product companies have transitioned to flexible packaging. We also started a platform for conversations on social media, particularly with younger consumers, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. And finally, in 2020, FPA launched its magazine, FlexPack Voice™ to further amplify our education and outreach across the supply chain.

In one case study, where the difference between plastics was easily visible, FPA detailed the difference from an environmental lifecycle standpoint, using laundry detergent pod flexible stand-up pouches versus rigid PET containers. The use of single-dose pods has become a popular method for packaging laundry detergent, replacing liquid or powdered detergent with pre-measured dissolvable packets. When considering all the lifecycle aspects mentioned previously, the flexible plastic stand-up pouch won hands down.

Water consumption, affected by the differences in packaging weight as well as its use to cool molds during the injection molding process for the rigid PET container, was +660% greater for the PET container. Considering GHG emissions, the flexible pouch has a significant advantage, due largely to using a less energy intense laminating process and fewer materials, whereas the rigid PET container results in additional energy use, in turn leading to overall higher GHG emissions (+726%). Once again, as a result of its lightweight nature, the flexible pouch has a favorable outcome regarding fossil fuel consumption. The rigid PET container has a fossil fuel usage of nearly 504% greater than that of the zipper flexible stand-up pouch, and the package weight is 6-times heavier. Even when considering current U.S. recycling rates for PET, which is readily recyclable, the rigid PET container results in nearly 4-times more material ending up in the landfill than the flexible pouch (assuming zero recycling for the pouch). The recycling rate of both the rigid PET container and the lid would need to increase from the current rate of 30% to over 80% in order for the PET container to have the same level of material going to landfill as the pouch.

FPA followed up with similar case studies on e-commerce packaging, which was slated to see tremendous growth, even before COVID-19, where we now see an escalation of this growth. Again, using the laundry detergent as one example again, FPA looked at the various forms of detergent arriving through e-commerce channels, including liquid detergent in an HDPE bottle;

liquid detergent in a bag-in-box configuration; pods in a rigid PET container; pods in a flexible pouch with an overbox; and pods in a flexible pouch without an overbox. Similar results were shown as the two formats that use the least fossil fuel are the pods in a flexible pouch without an overbox (-37.4%) and the liquid detergent in a bag-in-box format (-21.9%). Both are the lightest overall e-commerce packaging systems and contain more product using minimal materials. Overall GHG emissions are lower with the lighter packs, which generally consist of more flexible structures. Compared to the stand-up pouch with fitment, the lowest GHG emissions come from the pods in a flexible pouch with an overbox (-37.5%) and the liquid detergent in a bag-in-box format (-25.0%). Scenarios that use a significant amount of corrugated, in turn, use more water. This explains why the pods in a flexible pouch with an overbox are also higher (+5.1%) vs. the standard pouch with fitment when looking at water usage. And while corrugated has a high recycling rate of 92.3% and the two rigid formats, the HDPE bottle and PET container, are generally recyclable in most curbside programs; they still yield double the amount of packaging discarded compared to multi-layer flexible pouches.

FPA is using these case-studies across its publications and media platforms and encourages the entire supply chain to join in the conversation. We need education and conversation to articulate good science in an easy and meaningful manner, as we cannot fight the war on plastics without this science. We need to empower the supply chain and consumers with scientific knowledge about the environmental benefits of flexible packaging, including plastics. At a time when sterility and safety are top of mind, this message is all the more powerful.


Alison Keane

President and CEO, Flexible Packaging Association

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