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Commentary & Analysis

Do We Need to Be Careful About How We Discuss the Environmental Benefits of Flexible Packaging?

When it comes to the environmental benefits of flexible packaging, the laundry list is long. On the surface, flexible packaging offers a vast number of benefits over other forms of packaging. The challenge to these comparisons, however, is that flexible packaging isn’t doing a one-to-one replacement. How does this impact the accuracy of the discussion?

By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: August 21, 2018

When it comes to the environmental benefits of flexible packaging, the flex-pack industry has a lot to say. For comparable sized packages, flexible packaging... 

  • Requires less energy to produce.
  • Uses a fraction of the carbon dioxide emissions in production.
  • It is often much lighter weight, translating into a smaller environmental footprint for distribution.
  • Can be “right-sized” for shipping containers, maximizing the use of the space.

Package Printing’s “State of the Flexible Packaging Industry” gives the following example:  

A pound and a half of flexible plastic will package the same amount of beverage or liquid foods as 50 pounds of glass. It would take 26 truckloads of glass jars to transport the same amount of unfilled packages as one truckload of flexible pouches—with a correspondingly dramatic difference in fuel consumed and greenhouse gases emitted.[1]

Plastic Packaging Facts points out that there are other aspects of sustainability, too, such as flexible packaging’s ability to preserve and protect the product. There are real, bottom-line environmental benefits from being able to lengthen shelf life and reduce product loss.[2]

Indeed, if you look up “environmental benefits of flexible packaging,” you’ll find a wealth of information. What I’m not seeing a wealth of information on, however, is the fact that flexible packaging isn’t always used as a 1:1 replacement for other forms of packaging and how that impacts the discussion. Flexible packaging is transforming how we package goods, and as a result, the direct comparison often disappears.

For example, as flexible packaging grows (and part of the reason for its growth), so does the demand for convenience packaging, such as travel packs and individualized servings. Flexible packaging is fueling growth in this segment, and from an environmental perspective, this works counter to its positive environmental benefits. It takes more energy and creates a larger environmental footprint to create, say, eight individual servings than it does to create one larger eight-serving package. It also creates a larger volume of packaging waste.

(Then there is the issue of the multi-layer forms of flexible packaging required to create different barrier properties. If even one layer is non-recyclable, it renders the entire package non-recyclable. But that is a separate discussion.)

So when we discuss the environmental benefits of flexible packaging, it’s important to remember that we often aren’t making apples-to-apples comparisons. For us to say that flexible packaging has this or that environmental benefit over other forms of packaging, we need to make sure that we are making apples-to-apples comparisons (such as comparing packages that carry the same volume or have the same number of servings). Otherwise, we are comparing apples to oranges, and the accuracy of the comparison disappears.




Heidi Tolliver-Walker Heidi is an industry analyst specializing in digital, one-to-one, personalized URL, and Web-to-print applications. Her Marketer’s Primer Series, availalbe through Digital Printing Reports, includes “Digital Printing: Transforming Business and Marketing Models,” 1:1 (Personalized) Printing: Boosting Profits Through Relevance,” “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” and “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing.”



By Gordon Pritchard on Aug 21, 2018

“Then there is the issue of the multi-layer forms of flexible packaging required to create different barrier properties. If even one layer is non-recyclable, it renders the entire package non-recyclable.”
That’s a killer issue right there. Also, flexible packaging may not be able to be recycled - the municipal recycling company in my town won’t accept it so it goes into the land fill. In other countries, mostly Asian, plastics go straight into the waste stream - I.e. the river system and from there out into the ocean.


By Heidi Tolliver-Walker on Aug 21, 2018

Good point about municipal pick-up, and that goes for all plastics, not just flexible packaging. We live in an area where it's single stream recycling, but we've lived in areas where the municipality was VERY limited in what it could take (like, glass and plastic milk and juice bottles only). Even in a single-stream area, we still have to throw away our flexible packages.


By Gordon Pritchard on Aug 22, 2018

I would have thought that the issue of plastics in packaging would be a great opportunity for printers to lead the charge in finding, developing, and informing their brand customers about alternatives. But it seems not. The subject isn't even a topic at trade shows like LabelExpo. Sigh.


By André Salié on Aug 27, 2018

Packaging in any form is a must and a fact for many goods, especially for food.
Nevertheless if you are following the official government statements about the development of packaging waste that is not recycled in any sustainable form but just burned or stored the discussion about "advantages" becomes a flavor. A discussion about packaging without a discussion about it's reasonable usage and the at the same time additionally produced waste is not honest.


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