Recycling and waste management are top-of-mind for many Americans, who are looking for immediate, actionable, and results-driven steps toward cleaner and greener practices. However, while many states continue to push for plastic bans or restrictions, the results are tepid at best — leading many of us to wonder if there’s a better way. Although many solutions seem viable in writing, they may exacerbate environmental problems in practice. For example, if Americans move away from plastic and rely almost solely on paper and cardboard for packaging purposes, then how would we then address the resulting, and significant, deforestation?
Sustainability is ultimately about balance, and when we examine our current systems, we can all agree that there is much more to be done to improve the life cycle of beneficial materials like flexible packaging and plastic, to fully reap their benefits.
Flexible packaging is more durable, light, and protective than many alternative packaging options, which are the hallmarks of sustainability. Typically composed of two or more materials, including plastic, joined together to protect and preserve contents, flexible packaging is more resource-efficient than many other packaging options because production requires less water and energy, and production and transportation result in less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Surprising as it may sound, it is more effective than most other packaging options in protecting products from contamination, spoilage, and damage — resulting in less waste in the first place.
While other packaging types may be more readily accepted at recycling centers, they offer fewer protections for consumer products, especially food, while ultimately being more expensive and less sustainable to produce. Flexible packaging helps to extend the shelf life of food products — the number one contributor to landfills and GHG emissions — through protection from sunlight, bacteria, odors, moisture, damage from the transportation process, and more. This is especially important considering that if food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after the U.S. and China. In fact, 52% of all flexible packaging is used for food.
Additionally, flexible packaging optimizes volume and weight to maximize storage and transportation efficiency while reducing the amount of packaging waste in need of end-of-life management. Increasing efficiency and reducing packaging waste results in source reduction — the most effective, environmentally preferred method of addressing excess waste.
Still, there remains a problem — what do we do with flexible packaging waste? The current recycling infrastructure, which varies greatly from one municipality to another — even within the same state — is often inconsistent, inefficient, and not accessible for all residents. Additionally, curbside programs face significant challenges, including shifting commodity economics, stresses on taxpayer-funded collection services, and concerns about material quality and end-markets.
But there’s a solution, and it already exists with an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) approach, a policy in which commercial producers shoulder some of the financial and operational responsibility to process and recycle consumer packaging. Advanced recycling technologies, which are currently used for industrial recycling and waste management, can be implemented for consumers through current and new material recovery facilities (MRF) to process an expanded list of recyclables, including multi-material flexible packaging. Realizing infrastructure investment and recycling modernization — with a shared responsibility with taxpayers, municipal governments, producers, and consumers — is shown to increase recycling rates and cost-efficiency while reducing environmental impact.
Source: Packaging Strategies