Activists criticize it. Environmentalists decry it. Recyclers fear it. Consumers question it. Anyway you cook it, flexible packaging takes the heat. But is all this criticism justified? No. This bias is simply not based in science. Flexible packaging offers many benefits, too, and those all-important benefits are often overlooked when we see a used package in our trash containers. Perhaps counter to intuition, some of the benefits of flexible packaging actually come from its reduced environmental impact.

There are many different factors that must be considered when assessing the sustainability performance of a package. According to the Consumer Goods Forum’s Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability 2.0, these include lifecycle indicators such as cumulative energy demand and global warming potential, and attributes such as recycled material content and packaging recovery rate. While energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions are used as direct measures of sustainability performance, attributes such as recovery rate – whether for energy recovery or mechanical recycling – are often the result of actions that are taken to have an impact on one or more of the primary lifecycle indicators. Increased recycling, for example, has the potential to reduce energy usage, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce material disposed of in a landfill. But we don’t recycle simply for the sake of recycling, we also recycle to impact those other benefits, and we can’t forget that when trying to assess overall sustainability performance.

Additionally, assessing sustainability requires taking a full lifecycle view and considering multiple aspects of performance and a range of impacts on society, the environment and the economy. It can’t be defined by a single attribute, whether that attribute is waste sent to a landfill or consumer recycling rate.

If you can’t judge a book by its cover, then it certainly isn’t appropriate to judge a package without considering its contents. All packaging exists for a reason. We use it to protect our products while we ship them, store them and sell them. Without proper packaging, many goods would be damaged during shipment and food would spoil before consumers could eat it. Imagine shipping a flat screen television from the factory to your home without packaging. The result would be a non-functioning television. And without the product inside the package we wouldn’t need the package itself, so it is imperative that we think about the contents and the purpose for the packaging when assessing the sustainability performance of the packaging.

The Environmental Case for Flexible Packaging

As with other types of packaging, flexible packaging offers many benefits. Flexible packaging is light weight, it’s convenient and it’s easy to transport. It enables single serve packaging so our food stays fresh until we’re ready to eat it. Because it is so resource efficient – a small amount of packaging can contain a large amount of product – it offers great value in use, whether considering economics or environmental impact. It offers the “hidden” environmental benefit of using less material in the first place and saving other resources from being wasted.

For example, a 6 gram (0.2 ounce) flexible plastic package for 284 g (10 ounces) of tortillas is a great investment in protecting the quality and integrity of the tortillas. Flexible packaging lets us take fresh foods home from the store and keep them on hand for a few days or a few weeks until we’re ready to eat them. Without proper packaging many foods would go stale or spoil after a few days.

If the tortillas in this example were not properly packaged and went stale before being eaten, they would be thrown away, in effect wasting the resources used to create them. Since making 284 g of tortillas requires more energy and more raw materials than making 6 g of packaging, the impact of discarding the product exceeds the impact of discarding the packaging. Using a small amount of resources to make the packaging to protect a larger investment of resources needed to make the product makes sense.

When assessing flexible packaging against secondary criteria or attributes, such as recycled material content or recycle rate, it is important to understand why we are interested in those criteria. For example, we may want to recycle our packaging in order to reduce raw material consumption, reduce energy usage and reduce discards to a landfill. Most consumers understand intuitively that if we use less we are saving more. But intuition can be misleading when trying to compare things we’re not familiar with.

Most consumers are unaware of the amount of energy it takes to manufacture a glass jar or metal canister or flexible plastic pouch. So how can we compare different packaging types using intuition? The answer is that we can’t. We need to use scientific principles to measure the impacts of our choices and use good science to make the best decisions.

Comparing Nuts to Nuts

Take the example of a stand-up pouch containing salted or honey roasted nuts. A typical flexible package containing 16 ounces of nuts weighs about 12 grams. The package is made of several different materials, cleverly combined into a laminate structure, with each of the materials in the package selected to provide a specific benefit. Aluminum foil or a metalized polymer film provides barrier protection, polyester provides toughness and a high quality print surface, and polyethylene provides the sealability needed to hold the package together.

Unfortunately, there are currently very limited options for consumer recycling of flexible packaging, and it most likely will end up destined for disposal in a landfill. Finding alternatives to landfill disposal for used flexible packaging is something that leading companies and trade associations, like the Flexible Packaging Association, are working to address. But even without recycling a single package, this type of packaging can help us meet our sustainability goals. So for now, let’s consider how a flexible package impacts the environment even if it’s not recycled.

Let’s begin by assuming that a well-intentioned person wanted to reduce resource consumption and reduce landfill discards by switching from a flexible package to a more recyclable material. Let’s say they instead selected a glass jar with a metal lid. That type of package, like the flexible package, meets all the performance requirements for protecting nuts, and product protection should be the first criteria considered when selecting a packaging material. A 16 ounce jar of nuts requires a total of about 338 grams of glass for the jar, plus metal for the lid.

Now let’s assume that the glass jar is recycled at a very high – and currently unachievable – rate of, say 90 percent. If 90 percent of the glass jars are recycled and 10 percent are sent to a landfill then, on average, about 34 grams of glass will be sent to a landfill for every 16 ounces of nuts sold.

If every single flexible packaging, on the other hand, is sent to a landfill, a total of only 12 grams of flexible packaging will be landfilled for every 16 ounces of nuts sold, nearly two-thirds less.

So, although the intent was to reduce landfill discards by switching to a more recyclable container, the actual result – which is not intuitive to most consumers – is that landfill discards have actually increased when switching away from flexible packaging.

This also means that more raw materials are consumed to manufacture the glass packaging. And as an added benefit, the flexible package uses only about one-sixth the amount of energy to manufacture as the glass container.

Now, this example doesn’t mean that flexible packaging is always the best choice. For some items, yes, glass is a better choice; for others, metal is the preferred material; while for others, paper is best. But the example does demonstrate the importance of using scientific principles to determine performance.

We can’t simply rely on intuition or guess as the answer. Understanding sustainability performance is much too complicated and far too important for that.

And for many applications, although it may not be intuitively obvious, flexible packaging may indeed offer the best overall sustainability performance. Using scientific principles to assess performance against multiple criteria over the entire product lifecycle will help us rest assured of that.

And that’s what sustainability is all about.

The Dow Chemical Company
(281) 966-4239