Last March, Steven Sargeant, Ph.D., the general manager of R&D/technology for Flex Films International, gave a presentation on sustainability at a conference in the Chicago area. He described the response from many brand owners in attendance in one word: “stunned.” Stunned, as in many were completely unaware of the sustainable solutions when it comes to plastic film that are currently available.
Flex Films, a division of Uflex Ltd., knows a thing or two about sustainable films. In fact, Sargeant says the company produced one of the first BOPET films from bio-sourced monomers in the industry years ago. It didn’t take, as cost issues largely prevented its adoption, but it gave Flex Films a starting point – both when it came to future sustainable film developments and when it came to discussing the importance of flexible packaging sustainability.
Today, Sargeant says Flex Films produces grades of PCR and PET films with up to 90 percent recycled content. The company intends to roll the lines out globally to provide both a sustainable and cost-effective solution.
“Typically, in an average package – which is about the size of a notepad – the cost to switch from virgin materials to recycle-based products is less than a penny a pack, and in many instances, much less than that,” says Sargeant, a 20-year veteran of the industry. “There are a lot of bio-based products out there that are five to 10 times the cost versus recycled materials. You can imagine that might be difficult to absorb. In the flexible space, it’s less than a cent or even less than a half a cent to convert to recycled materials. If a tenth of a cent per package is too much to absorb, how committed is the industry?”
We chatted with Sargeant about the state of sustainable films, the future of film and why there seems to be a disconnect in the industry over what is and isn’t currently available. Have a look:
On sustainable films then versus now:
“The first wave was to reduce thicknesses. That’s gone on now for about 10 years. I don’t see much more of that happening. You surely should consider that sustainable, but that was mostly to reduce overall costs, not necessarily to impact the environment. In any case, it did have that effect. Now we’re seeing people that are looking to reduce the carbon footprint, either through recycled sources or changing their structures. For instance, if they’re using aluminum foil, switching to metallized film. Or using PCR-based materials or reducing the overall size of the package, reducing the footprint of the package in general. The pressure in this area has significantly ramped up in the past six months. You can tell conversations are becoming more ‘we have to have it.’ That’s going to open up a lot of technology and design opportunities. Our opinion is the most cost-effective option to reduce carbon is the production of materials with recycled inputs. Various external and internal work has shown at least a 50 percent reduction in carbon is possible when this approach is utilized. Why this approach is not fully deployed at this time in the industry looking for carbon reduction is clearly due to a lack of awareness of the brand owners, because this technology is viable.
“Don’t think of this as a fad. We’ve all got to get on board here. The end users, the consumer, wants it. The people that absorb the sea change in the industry are going to be successful. Those who think of it as a fad or as a nuisance, they’re going to be struggling.”
On solutions like compostability:
“Things like compostable products are hard to articulate what the value is because if you compost in one scenario, it degrades, and in another scenario it doesn’t. It’s hard to educate the market to that. It’s easier to educate the market that the product is coming from bio-sourcing. I think the biodegradable solutions are just in general very hard to educate people about and they’re very skeptical of them, whereas bio-sourced materials are recycled materials – that’s a lot easier thing to educate people about and they’re much more accepting of.”
On the future of sustainable films:
“My own opinion is bio sourcing of raw materials is going to be a winner, but it’s going to take 10-15 years to mature. That could be completely wrong. It could be that people build better recycling streams and flexible packaging can be converted back into new flexible packaging. From where I am, it seems that bio sourcing is going to be a big winner. But between now and then, there will be a mix of things that people will be using – either recycled inputs or some bio sourcing, etc.”
On the general disconnect in the industry:
“We’re working deeply with a few select brand owners. Through that experience, we’re educating the converter to what these folks want. We’re working very closely with brand owners to help understand what their needs are and to help develop packaging systems.
“Sustainability is about minimizing carbon impact. This can be accomplished through the use of recycled materials, developing recycle-ready materials, supply chain management issues or any combination of these factors. In the case of recycle-ready solutions, current systems are hardly in place to handle flexible packaging materials at the MRF level. Significant investments are needed to facilitate this. Only through total cooperation of the industry from materials companies, converters and brand owners will significant progress be made in this area.”