Seven strategies for a sustainable future in flexible packaging

Seven strategies for a sustainable future in flexible packaging

LEATHERHEAD, Surrey, UK and AKRON, Ohio, USA – April, 29 2021 – Sustainability in design, use and end-of-life processing will increasingly define flexible packaging across the next five years, according to new expert insight from Smithers. This will create challenges for the whole value chain through to 2026, even as the market adjusts to a market space redefined by COVID-19, and short-term disruption in the supply of raw materials in H1 2021.

In its latest in-depth study – The Future of Sustainable Flexible Packaging to 2026  – Smithers notes that with the emergence of circular economy models there is a need to shift away from traditional weight reduction considerations to other strategies. Published today and available for purchase it has a direct focus on actionable approaches that can be taken at all stages of the flexible packaging value chain to realise a greener tomorrow.

These are grouped into seven key business and technology areas:
  • Design for recycling – including optimising barrier performance and coatings, switching to new high-performance paper grades, and the rapid development of functional polymer monomaterial packs
  • Overcoming technical and regulatory challenges to increase the volume of recycled content used in films and other plastic formats, with a focus on low-density polyethylene (LDPE), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • Innovating to meet the emergent need for more reusable flexible formats in both traditional retail and the booming e-commerce segment
  • Improved waste management via marking and collection, to boost supplies of high-grade post-consumer resin (PCR), including grades suitable for food contact applications
  • Sustainable sourcing of feedstocks, including PCR, but also bio-based versions of existing plastics, substitution from polymer to paper substrates where plausible, and the wider use recycled pulp in packaging papers
  • Use, where plausible, of biodegradable flexible plastics. Despite the predicted extension of prohibitions on oxodegradable materials beyond the EU, there is still scope for PHAs or other alternatives to traditional plastics with certain product groups
  • Weight reduction – the economics of flexible packaging will continue to call for thinner substrates, and lifecycle analyses can highlight the CO2 savings it also gives in distribution compared to heavier rigid packaging materials.
R&D in flexible packaging is being shaped by various actors – packaging converters, brand owners, governments, and ultimately consumers. The year 2025 is a key date. Many brands and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs) companies have committed to making some or all of their packaging fully recyclable by that date. This poses a challenge as no universally accepted definition for ‘recyclable’ exists. The onus thus falls on the flexible packaging industry to highlight the advantages of its products and communicate how they can contribute to these circular economy goals.

Furthermore, regional sensitivity is necessary. Across continents, countries, and even within larger federal states different waste management infrastructure, legislation, and consumer preferences exist. This adds a further layer of complexity to implementing effective moves to mitigate the pollution threat from flexible polymer formats.

Acknowledging this, Smithers’ analysis considers the state-of-the-art for effective design and end-of-life management in both mature and developing economies. For the latter there is a direct role that companies can play in shaping the evolution of these to maximise returns from the wider use of innovative flexible formats.

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