How Does Flexible Packaging Fit Into a Circular Economy?

by Sustainability Expert Shelbi Orme

Let’s talk about a circular economy! Now what is a circular economy? Well, a circular economy decouples economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. It is a resilient system that is good for business, people, and the environment. The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution. A key component of a circular economy is source reduction and reuse.

How does flexible packaging fit into a CE?

Flexible packaging uses the least amount of packaging material to protect the product. By doing so, it…

  • Uses less energy and water to produce.
  • Creates less greenhouse gas emissions in production and shipment.
  • Creates less waste in the first place both in terms of packaging leftover and product damage.
  • Flexible packaging is also integral to refill and reuse systems.
    • For example: a sustainable skincare company that I follow uses flexible packaging as a refill system for their products, their typical jars are made of glass. But their glass jar packaging contains more plastic by weight & mass than their flexible packaging refills.
  • This fulfills the first R in the 2 R’s reduce, reuse, recycle
    • Flexible packaging reduces every metric in terms of sustainability; therefore, it is a sustainable option & an integral part of a circular economy. 

Why I think FPA is important?

They advocate for industry change which is crucial for large scale change I cannot do as an individual.

What current legislation/programs related to CE are underway?

The main policy packages right now are about extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging. The devil is always in the details, however, and some states are getting it right and others are not. To have a meaningful EPR program, money flowing from fees on consumer goods needs to modernize the US recycling system – granting access to all for recycling and composting and for all packaging, so that a circular economy is realized – today’s packaging gets collected, recycled, or composted and the products of that recycling and composting get made into new packaging and products. Some pieces of legislation will just collect fees to pay for the status quo and that doesn’t do anyone any good.

We support bills that have been introduced in Maryland, Connecticut, and Vermont and are working on bill currently in New York, Colorado, and California. There should be federal legislation coming soon as well.

  • I personally believe, after being a part of the zero-waste movement for years, that if we have focused the same energy we did on choosing materials that were currently recyclable, but in every other way not as easy on the environment, and instead focused on correcting & updating our broken recycling system to effectively recycle the better materials, flexible packaging, we would be looking at a very different system.

What are the current challenges?

We can and do make flexible packaging that is recyclable and compostable, however, without the infrastructure to collect and process it, we are stranded. Thus, investment in modernizing our recycling infrastructure is needed. Advancements in mechanical recycling as well as advanced recycling technologies exist – we just need to implement them. A well-crafted EPR system could help fund that investment. At the same time, we need to move from a city-by-city and county-by-county approach to recycling and composting also. At the very least it should be standardized by State if not throughout the Country. Everyone should have access to convenient recycling and composting and there shouldn’t be different rules depending on where you live.

What brands are doing to contribute to CE?

Most brands are working toward total recyclability or composability of their packaging, and many have publicly stated this. Many are also working on reusable and refillable systems as well. Finally, the entire supply chain would like to see more post-consumer recycled content (PCR) used in packaging to reduce the need for more virgin materials. However, without the infrastructure to collect, recycle and compost, it is difficult to see how these goals will be fulfilled and where the material for PCR content will come from. It is all about a new modern system for the U.S. that will finally close the loop toward a true circular economy.

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