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The Challenge of Recycling Flexible Packaging

It is well understood that multi-layer flexible packaging has excellent sustainability advantages. It is lightweight and less costly to ship than other options; it keeps products fresh, crisp, and protected thus reducing spoilage, and it is infinitely customizable in both structural and graphic design. However, the perceived value of flexible packaging has long been diminished by the fact that its composite materials are not readily recyclable by the consumer and recycling facilities. It works well at every other point in the product life cycle except for end-of-life.

Meanwhile, consumers have a mounting interest in transparency and sustainability and brand owners have significant sustainability objectives that coincide with these expectations.  Until recently, most flexible packaging was non-recyclable because the disparate materials in its multiple laminated layers could not be successfully processed by recyclers. Add to this consumer uncertainty about what and how to recycle flexible packaging, and non-compliance issues can interfere with even the most efficient municipal recycling programs. The pressure is on to develop a flexible packaging recycling process that supports a circular economy and protects the environment.

The Challenge: How can brand owners meet the end-of-life recycling expectations of consumers, municipalities, and their own sustainability missions while employing the other positive lifecycle attributes of flexible packaging? The solution lies in their ability to address many complex issues, including:

  • National and global brands are distributed across municipalities with widely varying recycling programs, regulations, and communications programs;
  • Brand owners, especially leading-edge niche producers, may not have the resources to specify and drive development of recyclable flexible packaging;
  • Most plastics recycling programs have relied on decades-old resin identification codes (RICs) to teach consumers what and how to recycle, a system that does not apply to multi-layered flexible packages that are made of more than one type of resin and binding agents;
  • Existing recycling statements, marks, and logos on packaging have been inconsistently applied, are unclear, and can disenfranchise the consumer from exercising his or her genuine desire to recycle more and recycle better;
  • The U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides stipulate how and what brand owners can claim in their environmental or “green” marketing messages
Learn more about emerging solutions in the marketplace for recycling flexible packaging.