As they take steps toward creating a circular economy for their products, flexible packaging companies continue to face calls for reducing or eliminating the use of plastic entirely. Recent examples include a March 2022 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), the nonprofit behind the U.S. Plastics Pact, an initiative designed to advance a circular economy. The report called for greater recycling. But it also listed the elimination of single-use plastic flexible packaging as part of its overarching strategy.
“While we must step up the efforts to recycle the flexibles we currently use, first and foremost we need an urgent step-change toward eliminating and innovating away from single-use flexible packaging,” said Sander Defruyt, the plastics initiative lead for the foundation, in a statement at the time. “Current efforts are only scratching the surface.”
Some companies see the language around elimination and argue they can continue to exert influence from the inside. They want to ensure the conversation includes the benefits of plastic, for example, such as its lighter weight and ability to preserve food longer.
“We think we’re better off working with them, even though we may have some disagreements about the best approach, rather than not working with them,” says David Clark, vice president of sustainability for Zurich, Switzerland-based Amcor. Clark, who is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sits on the advisory board for EMF’s New Plastics Economy initiative.
Others see reasons to disengage from the work of the foundation, even as they continue to press forward with their efforts to create a circular economy. Sealed Air Corporation was a member of the EMF-led New Plastics Economy initiative from 2016 to 2018. Afterward, the company shifted its focus on strengthening the recycling system for flexible plastics, says Ron Cotterman, vice president of sustainability innovation and strategy at Sealed Air.
“Bringing together like-minded companies to collaborate on circularity initiatives for flexible plastic packaging created a better opportunity for us and our industry,” Cotterman says. “As a result, we created some pretty remarkable circular plastic loops for flexible packaging.”
The EMF report titled “Flexible packaging: The urgent actions needed to deliver circular economy solutions” described flexible packaging as “the most challenging segment to address” on the journey toward realizing a circular economy for plastics, which faces an important milestone within a few years. Many consumer brands and packaging companies are working to boost the recycling of materials and the use of recycled materials by 2025.
The report recommended an overarching strategy of eliminating and moving away from single-use flexible packaging and scaling up efforts to recycle and develop alternatives such as paper or compostable packaging.
Amcor is focused on the second half of the broad outline, particularly the emphasis on recycling. “That’s where we feel we can combine efforts and add value,” Clark says. “At the same time, it’s an opportunity to work with those groups and educate them about the benefits of plastic packaging.”
He believes the educational efforts are making headway. “For the average consumer, we’re making good progress,” he says. “If you look at what they choose in their grocery carts, they are choosing plastic packaging.”
Amcor is doing what it can to ensure as much of that packaging as possible can be recycled. The company pledged that by 2025, all of its packaging will be designed as recyclable, reusable, or compostable, Clark says. He estimates that as of fiscal year 2021, Amcor had a recycle-ready solution for 76% of its product portfolio.
“It can take a couple of years for customers to do the testing and get products in the market, but we’ve already developed products that can convert another 20% of our portfolio,” Clark says. Recent advances include the PrimeSeal™ Eco-Tite® Recycle-Ready Shrink Bag, which is for fresh and processed meat, poultry, and cheese.
The company also is focused on improving the economics of recycling and beefing up the infrastructure, Clark says, adding that flexible packaging was not initially designed to be recycled.
Lastly, the company is working with partnerships to boost consumer participation in recycling efforts around the world, Clark says. “Even in areas where you have decent recycling programs, especially in the U.S., you can have low participation or collection rates.”
TC Transcontinental Packaging also is working within the framework of EMF and its plastics pacts. In 2019, the company became the first Canadian manufacturer to sign on to the foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, notes Magali Depras, chief strategy and sustainability officer at TC Transcontinental. “That has been embedded in our strategy.”
The company is working toward a goal of having all its packaging be recyclable or compostable by 2025. But it also concentrated on using recycled plastic in its packaging, an effort that led it to invest in a recycling venture.
In 2020, the company bought the assets of Enviroplast Inc., a Quebec company that recycles flexible packaging. The venture’s products include a bag for newspapers and commercial flyers that contains 50% post-consumer recycled (PCR) resin, Magali says.
To further increase the volume of PCR, TC Transcontinental joined other Canadian companies to create a circular plastic task force. Among its priorities, the task force is looking at ways to ensure the quality, accessibility, and traceability of PCR, Magali says. “It’s been a successful collaboration across the supply chain.”
The company also invested in a research and development center, the Art, Science, and Technology Research and Applications Center, in Menasha, Wisconsin. “It’s a platform that we put in place to accelerate our innovation, our prototyping, our speed to market, the support we give to our clients,” says Magali, who expects 2023 to be a big year for new products.
PolyExpert Inc., a Canadian manufacturer of polyethylene films, focused on the adoption of mono-material packaging, which is easier to recycle. The company’s priorities also include using more recycled content, though pricing and availability have been an issue, says Pierre Sarazin, vice president of research and development and sustainability at PolyExpert.
More broadly, the company favors a systemwide approach to solving the issues of plastic waste, Sarazin says, and it remains engaged with EMF. The company even launched an internal project called “Dear Ellen” to bring together all its product development projects under the perspective of sustainability.
“The foundation’s first reports—‘The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics’ in 2016 and then ‘The New Plastics Economy: Catalyzing Action’ presented in January 2017 at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos—created a very important awareness among the public and all stakeholders in the value chain of packaging and single-use plastics,” Sarazin says. “Actions to solve plastic waste and plastic pollution had been neglected for decades.”
But while the foundation succeeded in highlighting the issue of waste mismanagement, it also accelerated the denigration of plastic, Sarazin says.
The efforts to replace plastic could help companies meet their commitments to reduce plastic waste under the U.S. Plastics Pact, he says. But the replacements could have negative consequences in other areas, such as carbon emissions and food preservation. Plastic plays a key role in preventing food waste, which is also environmentally harmful, Sarazin says.
Overall, he remains positive about the foundation’s influence. Building on its work in plastic, it made progress in other areas such as food and fashion. And it is giving more consideration to a systems approach.
“It is the single-use nature of products that is the most problematic for the planet, more so than the material that they’re made of,” Sarazin says. “In the long term, I think we will certainly have to change the commitments to have a systems approach without targeting a particular material.”
Revising the System
Sealed Air focused on total system design where it is better to find ways to recycle materials that bring significant societal value, rather than targeting to eliminate materials difficult to recycle today, according to Cotterman.
EMF was an early inspiration for Sealed Air’s commitment to design 100% of its packaging solutions to be recyclable or reusable by 2025 while offering an average of 50% recycled or renewable content across all material solutions. But Sealed Air moved beyond the EMF’s work by leading supply chain collaborations, with partners worldwide to solve the problems with the recycling systems, Cotterman says.
“The question is not ‘Is it broken?’ or ‘What materials are difficult to recycle?’ It’s ‘What are you going to do about creating a truly circular system for essential packaging materials?’ and that’s where we start to bifurcate,” he says.
Since concluding its engagement with the foundation’s New Plastic Economy initiative in 2018, Sealed Air focused on developing products, systems, and collaborations that boost the recycling of flexible plastic packaging.
The company partnered, for example, with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle® program, which developed new labels to help consumers understand where and how materials can be recycled.
Sealed Air also worked to stand up for the advanced recycling industry, which promises to absorb a broader range of plastics than conventional mechanical recycling methods. The efforts include investing in advanced recycling processes to demonstrate that the same packaging that protects foods can be collected and recycled into new food packaging.
“We do a lot of education for people,” Cotterman says. “This is not some mystery science. It’s been around for decades. It’s just a question of how you make a commercial success out of it.”
To demonstrate the viability of a circular loop for plastics, Sealed Air collaborated with U.K. grocery chain Tesco, advanced recycling company Plastic Energy, chemical manufacturer SABIC, and cheesemaker Bradburys Cheese.
The partners created the loop for a multi-layer film packaging for cheese, Cotterman says. Tesco encouraged consumers to drop off used flexible packaging in stores. From there, they were routed to Plastic Energy, which used advanced recycling technology to turn the used plastics into an oil that was provided to SABIC, which created the resin that Sealed Air then used to manufacture new food-grade film. Bradburys used the film to package cheese for Tesco.
Sealed Air reproduced the loop in North America with ExxonMobil and Ahold Delhaize USA, Inc., which operates Giant Food, Food Lion, and other supermarket chains in the U.S. That loop involves a film used in packaging poultry.
“This is essential for our industry, to demonstrate that recycling can happen, and you can make high-quality materials that protect products, keep those molecules in play, reduce your reliance on virgin materials, and reduce your carbon footprint,” Cotterman says.
Joel Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in York, Pennsylvania.