In the last year, as many as 350 brand owners and retailers globally have announced plans to make all of their packaging recyclable, compostable or reusable by the year 2025. At the same time, some of these companies are going a step further by saying they plan to reduce the use of virgin plastics in their packaging — often by as much as 50 percent.
These are noble goals that play well in the media. The question is this: How are they going to reach these goals? As of today, the industry simply does not have the capacity to provide the “sustainable” materials necessary. Meanwhile, the infrastructure for recycling and composting doesn’t come close to meeting the needs that would make these goals viable.
These issues are fundamental to the flexible packaging industry, where plastics are the dominant material. Plastic’s use is expected to double in the next two decades, and nearly half of all plastic usage is for single-use packaging. Current recycled plastic content levels are very low in packaging, less than 10 percent for the most common plastics.
Flexible packaging offers many environmental benefits but the industry’s growth is somewhat stymied by the fact that many of its products simply are not recyclable. When it comes to packaging, many consumers equate recyclability with sustainability.
However, the magazine Recycling Today says plastic scrap recovery rates in the United States can’t currently meet all the demand that is coming online. Plastic recycling rates are estimated at 14 percent in the U.S. It is said more plastics are being burned for fuel in the U.S. than are being recycled. Many of the recycled plastics cannot be used in packaging, but are down-cycled into products such as plastic decking or fibers for clothing.
Biodegradable resins seem an excellent answer. However, many are compostable only in commercial operations that are relatively sparse and material collection is difficult. Many consider biodegradability a last-resort alternative.
Admittedly, the six-plus years to 2025 seems a long way off. Lots can happen between now and then in terms of process, technology and material innovations. However, to meet the needs of its customers, the flexible packaging providers need to act today or risk losing status as the industry’s fastest-growing segment.
John Kalkowski Editor-in-Chief
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