A new report aims to lay the groundwork for a U.S. recycling system that can better handle the expected growth in flexible packaging over the next decade.
Changes could include the adoption of new technologies and improvements in public access to recycling, according to the report, dubbed “Packaging Compass: Evaluating Trends in U.S. Packaging Design.”
But changes also depend on recyclers, policymakers, packaging manufacturers, and consumer brands working together to ensure more material is recycled and reused, according to the report, which takes a look at the next decade of packaging design and demand. It was published in March by AMERIPEN—the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment and the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI).
The end goal is to help close a gap between the recycling system as it is and the recycling system as it needs to evolve. In addition to the growing use of flexibles, the report identified strong interest in compostable packaging and packaging made with post-consumer recycled (PCR) content.
The findings could help guide investments for recycling facilities, says Dan Felton, executive director of AMERIPEN, a materials-neutral trade group for the packaging industry. But the findings could help other stakeholders, as well, as they seek to build a circular economy.
“The study data will help us anticipate and proactively plan for program and policy shifts so we can work with recyclers, legislators, and packaging designers to help close the gaps and develop and implement effective strategies to increase packaging recovery,” Felton says.
Planning for Growth
The report—which focuses on packaging for consumer categories such as food, beverage, and personal care—forecasts slower growth ahead for the packaging industry overall. That’s because brands are designing packages specifically for shipping, eliminating the need for secondary and even tertiary packaging. And as the COVID-19 pandemic fades, more people are shopping in stores, reducing the need for shipping packages.
However, flexible packaging is expected to outpace the industry average, according to the report, which draws on interviews and surveys with 645 consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies and retailers, manufacturers of packaging machinery, converters, and packaging material suppliers.
Packaging designers turn to flexibles for various reasons, the report notes, including their lighter weight and ability to protect products. “Consumers also appreciate the ease of opening, resealable capability, low weight, and small shelf space these packaging formats offer,” the report says.
However, designers are starting to take recyclability into account, the report says, citing interest in mono-material packaging, which is easier to recycle than multi-material packaging. Other innovations are coming in recycling-friendly inks and labels.
But design is only part of the solution. “Since plastic films are expected to continue to increase in market size, we need to begin discussions on how best to collect, sort, and reprocess these materials to ensure a viable end market for their reuse,” the report says.
Flexible plastic films can be recycled, the report points out. But there are obstacles to getting them into the recycling stream. Only 1.9% of people in the U.S. have access to curbside recycling for flexibles, according to the report, citing statistics from The Recycling Partnership. While retail drop-off programs are available, consumer participation is generally low.
Even after flexible films enter the recycling stream, they pose challenges for municipal recycling facilities. “Their flexible nature makes it easy for them to get caught in rotators, tangling and wrapping up in the equipment, or being redirected toward paper lines, increasing contamination of that stream,” the report says. “As a result, many community recycling programs have banned the collection of flexible film packaging formats.”
Recent developments offer hope. One is the growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the recycling community. AI can guide robotic arms and other technologies to help identify and sort flexible packaging, preventing damage to equipment while ensuring recovery of the material. “This could help reduce concerns with the sortation of flexibles from curbside materials,” the report says.
The report also examines the potential of chemical recycling, which offers several benefits for plastics. In addition to allowing for a greater collection of flexible materials, chemical recycling can create higher-grade products for reuse, such as packaging that could pass muster with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the end use for most recycled flexibles is what the report describes as “downgraded applications such as ‘plastic lumber’ or polymer asphalt.”
Similar technologies could help meet the growing demand for PCR content, the report notes. Brands have set a range of goals for incorporating recycled content in their packaging by 2025. In some states, meanwhile, laws are calling for an increase in recycled content.
Supply may struggle to keep up with demand, however, especially given the higher quality and regulatory requirements of food packaging. “This indicates that we need to consider what investment is needed to ensure that we can match industry demand for PCR content within packaging,” the report notes.
An Eye on Compostables
Plastic is the most commonly used material in packaging, according to the report. It is used by 75% of the 394 CPG companies surveyed for the report. Paper came in second, at 61%, followed by glass (14%) and metal (13%).
Brands, however, are showing strong interest in another category: compostable materials. “Some see compostable packaging as the ideal circular economy story,” the report says. “Products are created from natural materials and returned to the earth via degradation back into the soil and basic elements.”
But as with flexibles, more infrastructure is needed, the report says. For example, a majority of the U.S. population lacks access to collection sites. “To realize the full circular potential of compostable packaging, the U.S. needs to increase consumer access to composting … ,” the report says.
Brands are also interested in reusable packaging. But that category faces challenges, as well, including the need for extensive infrastructure changes. “Currently, the costs and development of new systems make this a daunting challenge for many packaging companies to scale at the level required to have a significant impact,” the report says.
The Legal Front
The report concludes with a look at the role legislation could play in helping to improve the recycling system.
Notable developments include the spread of extended producer responsibility laws, which have been adopted in four states so far. The laws shift the financial responsibility for recycling onto packaging producers. To make a positive impact, however, the laws must account for how packaging is expected to evolve, the report notes.
Other legislative priorities include expanding access to recycling services, standardizing definitions used in the industry, and enhancing data collection. The report also makes a pitch for greater federal funding of recycling innovation, which should be directed by insights into the future of packaging, such as those outlined in the “Packaging Compass” report.
“We really need to get a dialogue on how we can best align end-of-life systems with packaging design,” says Rebecca Marquez, director of custom research for PMMI and the lead researcher for the report. “We are seeing a rise in some materials, in some packaging formats, that we just simply do not have the infrastructure to handle at end of life.”
Joel Berg is a freelance editor and writer based in York, Pennsylvania.