The Secret Sustainable Life of Plastic Packaging
Posted: February 17, 2021 | Word Count: 884
By Alison Keane, Esq., IOM, CAE
Plastic is at the center of the sustainability debate, a heated discussion fueled by viral photos of marine debris and litter from decades past. In the COVID-19 era, this is further perpetuated by the increased dependence on single-use plastics to reduce safety concerns and accommodate the drastic rise in demand for food delivery and e-commerce. Those who buy products packaged in plastic get caught up in this negative perception, and viable options for protecting our environment get lost in the shuffle as a result. The fact is that, while 82% of consumers say they care about sustainability aspects of packaging according to a recent study by the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), they do not need to quit buying plastic to live by this principle.1 In reality, plastic packaging and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.
Unpacking the narrative of plastic waste
It’s easy to see why the topic is covered like it is in traditional news and social media; when plastic is carelessly placed in or near oceans, it can do great harm to our ecosystem. But the absolute best way to tackle this challenge in the short term, at least in the U.S., is to target consumer behavior and educate the public about accepted materials for recycling and alternate disposal methods.
Even if consumers want to do the right thing to prevent plastic debris from reaching our oceans, it shrouds the real issue, especially in the U.S. An Ellen MacArthur Foundation study found 82% of global plastic marine debris originates in Asia due to lack of solid waste and recovery systems compared to 2% from the U.S. and Europe.2 The true responsibility is on global leaders and businesses to invest in waste management infrastructure so we have scalable, economical solutions to drive better waste disposal in the long run. While policymakers focus on bans for some of the items often found in oceans, let’s remind them of the real mission: improving inadequate infrastructure across the globe.
Recycling alone won’t save us
A common misconception among consumers is that recyclability is the only packaging attribute that matters in terms of sustainability. But even with recyclable packaging formats, an abundance of material still ends up in landfills. The aforementioned FPA study also determined that sustainable manufacturing processes and transportation efficiency are less often associated with sustainability than with aspects that are more obvious to consumers, such as recycling1; however, that does not mean they are not equally—if not more—important.
The EPA’s Waste Management Hierarchy prioritizes source reduction over recyclability in their preferred waste management methods, and it just so happens that flexible packaging tends to perform better in that regard compared to other formats. The lightweight nature of flexible materials and high product-to-package ratio—a measure of weight attributed to the product and its package where a high product and low package weight are ideal—reduce the amount of packaging needed. According to a recent evaluation of beverage containers, a flexible pouch is the most efficient format with a product-to-package ratio of 97-to-3, while a glass bottle has a ratio of 65-to-35. Even considering the current recycling rates, the glass bottle results in almost 13 times the amount of material in municipal solid waste.2
Glass and metal materials also require more water, fossil fuel and greenhouse gases up front to manufacture and transport, which makes them less environmentally friendly. Life cycle benefits beyond recycling—often unknown to consumers—include enhanced product protection and extended shelf life capabilities to reduce spoilage and food waste. Furthermore, flexible packaging has waste-to-energy potential, meaning plastic can be used to generate energy and divert waste from landfills as an end-of-life benefit.
Modern convenience can be sustainable
We are often made to feel guilty about the packaging we choose to purchase as consumers. From plastic straws and bags to flexible films, we are constantly challenged to change our habits. However, many people are time poor, and innovative product packaging can add value to their busy lives. Sometimes you need single-serving portion sizes for convenient meals eaten on-the-go or resealable pouches to easily store bulk goods in your pantry. While these packaging solutions are often made with plastic materials, you can leave your guilt at the checkout counter once you understand how flexible packaging can align with your lifestyle and sustainability goals.
Remember, you can lead a sustainable life and still use plastics. Ask yourself if you are digging deep enough to grasp the real sustainability profile of a package. If you do, you will find you can seek out packaging that adds value to your life without negatively impacting the lives of future generations.
About the Author
Alison Keane, Esq., IOM, CAE, has served as President and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association since October 2016, and provides strategic leadership and advocacy to advance and grow the flexible packaging industry. Keane previously served as the Vice President for Government Affairs and Industry Programs with the American Coatings Association. An environmental attorney, with 25 years of experience in the association and government sectors, Keane has also served at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland State Senate.