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.