A Flexible Path to a Circular Economy

A Flexible Path to a Circular Economy


The Flexible Packaging Association recently wrapped up a research project with PTIS, LLC and Priority Metrics Group (PMG) that explored the future of sustainability and flexible packaging through 2030. The project provides stakeholders—FPA members, policymakers, NGOs, consumer product companies, consumers, local municipalities, and other associations—with a road map to sustainability. It can guide individual members and other interested parties on approaches into the future for flexibles. The research included interviews and surveys with FPA members, management stakeholders, and industry experts, as well as surveys and interviews with brand owner/value chain stakeholders.

Firms Seek Sustainability Solutions

Insights from the stakeholder survey were enlightening. There is no single consistent or widely accepted definition of sustainability, and organizations want solutions, not just a description. Sustainability is a top management priority and is a highly visible initiative, which has moved up in importance—behind cost—and has become a standard element of requests for proposals (or RFPs).

Less than half of the companies surveyed identified specific, measurable goals related to sustainability. Approximately half of the surveyed companies have more qualitative goals—expressing a desired sustainability directional change. There is a strong focus on post-consumer recycled content (PCR) and recyclability, with more companies moving toward a more holistic view of sustainability, incorporating the circular economy. Brand owners are leading the sustainability charge, but they are looking for new solutions and help from converters for cost-effective, recyclable flexible packaging solutions.

With so many initiatives by private and public organizations, it is necessary to understand, evaluate, and prioritize current activities and identify new initiatives to provide the best road map for the flexible packaging industry to follow in the U.S.

The research also surveyed FPA members and found that the main sustainability goals of members were focused on recyclable structures, recycled content, and carbon impact in both the manufacturing and lifecycle of a package. Smaller members who are focused on niche applications have a stronger focus on compostable or bio-based materials than larger members.

By a wide margin, the most important of these initiatives is developing recyclable structures, as well as meeting brand owner requirements, which also tends to focus on making packaging recyclable. Consumer education and extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations are top of mind as many companies recognize a role for nontraditional players in the packaging value chain to drive collection and inclusion of PCR.

Brand owners are focusing on package lifecycle components—including carbon emissions—monolayer structures, curbside collection, the economic value of flexible packaging, regulations/EPR implication, and overall packaging design. While this is a value-chain effort, brand owners are identified as the primary owners of the packaging. FPA members support EPR to fund packaging recovery, but the support hinges on the actual collection of flexible packaging and not just a fee.

There is a recognition that the federal government will need to play a critical rolein getting all stakeholders to play key roles in recovery infrastructure. According to the FPA member survey, nearly 70% of participants agree or strongly agree that FPA should play a role in supporting national EPR legislation that will focus on all packaging materials as a way to fund a recovery infrastructure. The Consumer Brands Association (CBA) is trying to promote an array of fees at the federal level that could be used to drive infrastructure improvements. Additionally, The Recycling Partnership is drafting EPR legislation for both the federal and state levels.

In general, future legislation will include EPR and most likely more bag and single-use plastics bans. There is a latent need for coordinated direction moving forward. There are too many organizations pursuing similar goals with little or no coordination among them with brand owners making sustainability claims and signing up for very challenging goals that cannot be met by stated deadlines. FPA needs to collaborate with other like-minded associations and groups that are considering how to leverage national legislation that can fund recovery infrastructure. This is critical to finding actions that include flexible packaging recovery, and not just a tax on flexible materials.

FPA needs to collaborate with other like-minded associations and groups that are considering how to leverage national legislation that can fund recovery infrastructure.

All packaging materials and container formats are experiencing low recycling levels in the United States. The problem is particularly acute with flexible packaging, which is not collected curbside. In addition, some brand owners and packaging manufacturers seem to expect consumers to take additional steps to return materials at store drop-off locations. Flexible packaging is at a further disadvantage as material recovery facilities were not designed with flexible materials in mind when recovery infrastructure was developed in the 1980s–90s. There are a significant number of activities and goals needed for flexible packaging to be collected, sorted, reprocessed, and then entered back into a circular economy.

It’s clear that we need a sustainability road map, as there are many efforts underway across the value chain to move to a waste-free environment and keep plastic out of the environment. There is a desire to drive higher recycling rates for all packaging materials, especially flexible packaging, which has one of the lowest rates for recycling in the United States today. Plastic packaging volume is expected to triple by 2050. So, while there is strong support to move toward recycling globally and in the United States, still more recycling is needed. With so many initiatives by private and public organizations, it is necessary to understand, evaluate, and prioritize current activities and identify new initiatives to provide the best road map for the flexible packaging industry to follow in the U.S. The flexible packaging industry has a great opportunity to educate stakeholders and impact public opinion on the benefits of flexibles.

Flexible packaging creates a smaller environmental footprint compared to alternative packaging types, considering all impacts throughout a package’s life cycle. Flexibles require less energy to manufacture and transport, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel usage. They also use less water in manufacturing and have a high product-to-package ratio. FPA can focus on these positive aspects and work to create collaboration across the value chain to drive flexible packaging to align with circular economy principles.

Dani Diehlmann is communications director at FPA.

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