When it comes to advocating for the flexible packaging industry, the highest priority remains issues surrounding sustainability, says Alison Keane, president and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA).
“The biggest thing that we’re advocating on for the last four or five years since I’ve been here is sustainability,” says Keane, who has been leading FPA since 2016. “So, what is sustainability? There are a billion different definitions. Everybody has their own definition, including consumers, consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs), and policymakers. But sustainability is very important no matter how you define it.”
Keane, who was speaking during a presentation at PACK EXPO International in Chicago in late October, says FPA members and manufacturers nationwide share several concerns—from labor shortages to obtaining raw materials to problems with the supply chain. But sustainability remains a top concern for flexible packaging companies all along the value chain, especially with end-of-life issues dominating the discussions and because plastic packaging faces the biggest backlash.
“Again, lots of different definitions,” Keane tells the audience, which is a standing-room-only crowd, about the questions surrounding end of life. “Recycle ready, post-consumer recycled [PCR] content, bio-based materials, reuse, refill systems, and compostability.”
Brands Take Lead
Keane points out that CPGs are at the front of sustainability efforts. Brands are trying to meet their own goals, while consumers increasingly push to have sustainable packages. To consumers, the questions boil down to simple ones about whether the packaging is recyclable or not.
“But we know that there is a whole host of reasons why there can or cannot be sustainability in the life cycle,” she says.
About five years ago, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation set ambitious goals for companies to have reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025. While Keane says she is skeptical by nature, 2025 is fast approaching, which will make that target difficult to obtain. As an example, she points out that the industry has seen an increase in demand and mandates for recycled content in packaging. The publicly stated goal of CPGs is to have 22% of recycled content by 2025, she points out.
“And that’s 10 times more than is available globally, let alone in the United States,” Keane says.
Policymakers continually need to be reminded that the primary purpose of packaging is to protect a product and that some of the circularity goals might interfere with that need. She and other packaging advocates continue to work with state and federal policymakers to develop harmonized systems that coordinate circularity efforts. (For more on those efforts, see the cover story “What Now?” in the January/February issue of FlexPack VOICE® that will be available Jan. 1).
At times, regulators’ efforts don’t consider unintended consequences, such as what is happening with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Bans would be problematic because there isn’t a viable substitute, and PFAS is needed for PCR content, she points out.
“If you want PCR content in film, but you don’t want PFAS, that doesn’t match up,” Keane says.
Keane says the complex issues require coordination among many stakeholders, which has led FPA to develop relationships with other trade groups, such as AMERIPEN—the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, and no-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Product Stewardship Institute.
The institute promotes policies that limit the health, safety, and environmental impacts of consumer products. It supports extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies, and FPA also has backed EPR when the details make sense. FPA has been able to work with the group to explain why flexible packaging is needed and how it can be environmentally friendly, Keane says.
It is important for producers of all packaging types to be aware of the issues and to work together for common sense solutions, especially when policymakers start talking about bans, she also says.
“If you think that they’re not coming for you, I have a warning,” Keane says. “They are coming.”
Solutions such as mechanical recycling and advanced recycling are available but expensive, she also says, adding that she constantly has to remind policymakers of that fact, too. Glass and paper have been recycled for generations because they have been in the waste stream for a long time, allowing the infrastructure to be built around them. It will take time with flexible packaging, especially with plastic packaging, because the infrastructure needs to catch up.
“It’s a multifaceted journey,” she says. “Give us some time to figure it out. The reason we’re ubiquitous now is because of all of the lifecycle benefit issues up until collection, sortation, reprocessing, and recycling. Give us some time, and we’ll get there.”
Thomas A. Barstow is the senior editor at FlexPack VOICE®.