Striking a balance between challenges and opportunities when dealing with end-of-packaging-life challenges
(Moonachie, NJ – August 2016) The benefits of flexible packaging reach across a great number of industries from food products to medical devices. Today’s flexible packaging material and construction technologies offer many advantages, including content protection, improved shelf life and marketing appeal. However, they also present distinct challenges with respect to the waste stream and end-of-packaging-life considerations. Worldwide government initiatives are pushing a more eco-friendly agenda while growing consumer preference is impacting what brand owners and the flexible packaging industry are choosing to deliver to their customers.
LPS Industries, a leader in the flexible packaging industry, is among a group of forward thinking companies that have taken meaningful manufacturing initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of flexible packaging while being an active member of their industry trade association that is advocating for more thoughtful, eco-friendly decisions that ultimately impact the waste stream.
According to a recent U.S. EPA report, the overall recycling rate in the United States in 2013 was about 34.3% and has remained virtually unchanged over the past few years. However, within the flat overall rate, the plastics recycling rate continues to increase, with the 2016 Plastics Recycling Conference highlighting that plastics recycling is at an all-time high. The plastics recycling boom is being fueled in part by PP (Polypropylene) bottle recycling which climbed by 32 percent between 2012 and 2013 alone. Furthermore, Greenerpackage.com and a recent Transparency Market Research report suggest the “green packaging” market is slated to grow at a 6.2% CAGR between 2015-2021. Manufacturers of all types understand and are embracing the growing urgency around sustainable packaging and practices to both reduce the impact of waste on the planet and meet the demands of eco-conscious consumers. While there has been steady progress overall, there is still a long way to go as reflected in the statistics mentioned earlier in this article. LPS Industries supports this eco-friendly mission via their company mindset, their packaging solutions and changes to their manufacturing processes. “Sustainability is and will continue to be an increasingly important consideration in the flexible packaging industry. As a vested participant, we are happy to work with our customers as they evaluate the financial, social, and environmental impact of their packaging options.” explained Charles Ardman, VP Marketing at LPS Industries.
The Plastics Recycling Conference recently reported there has been a 79% increase in plastic film recycling since 2005. The drivers behind this increase range from local municipal efforts to industry recycling initiatives, as well as the efforts of consumer brands introducing recycled content in their packaging. For example, Johnsonville Foods, one of the largest sausage producers in the United States, recently switched to 25% use of recycled polystyrene foam in food trays for their meat products. Keurig Green Mountain, the specialty coffee maker, recently announced they are in the process of transitioning their popular K-Cups to fully recyclable polypropylene. The company set a goal of 2020 to complete the shift, which is their best estimate of not only addressing the technology and production issues but also to develop and implement programs to ensure that while the pod will be recyclable, it will actually be recycled within the existing recycling infrastructure.
Consumers are also helping drive changes in the flexible packaging industry. A recent study conducted for the Carton Council of North America determined that 91% of consumers expect leading brands to take an active role to increase the recyclability of their packages. The personal care and beauty products industry in particular generates an inordinate amount of waste with their traditionally “hard-to-handle” plastic packaging, and the public has taken notice. This has resulted in a growing number of the leading companies beginning to respond with eco-friendly packaging solutions that move the needle closer to sustainable solutions. One example is Burt’s Bees, whose primary packaging averages 30% PCR content, secondary packaging averages 45% and bottles average 60%. Customers can also mail back any empty product container for recycling with a prepaid mailing label. Other companies are adopting similar programs.
As expected, it is no surprise that regulatory and governmental entities including the FDA, FTC, ASTM, and the EU all are playing an active role. The FTC recently revised their “Green Guides”, an extensive set of guidelines that regulate the claims that brands can make regarding the environmental impact of their products. The revision was driven in part by public feedback, especially in response to manufacturers’ claims of the degradable nature of their products and additional clarification on recyclability and composting disposition of packaging. The European Union has broadened its historical focus from “merely” recycling to a “prevention” mindset. A recent study (Consumption of Biodegradable and Compostable Plastic Products in Europe) reported that the market for biodegradable plastic products grew to 100,000 metric tons in 2015 with the potential to expand beyond 300,000 metric tons in 2020. This is projected to be driven by the growing use of PLA (starch-based) compostable bags, which are expected to comprise a significant percentage of the increase. In Japan, the Container and Packaging Recycling Law enacted in 1997, continues to evolve with often complex sorting guidelines applied to numerous recycling categories. China is also rethinking their recycling industry model which is currently market driven to a more western influenced eco-responsible mindset.
This increased focus on the back end of the product life cycle has companies recognizing that there never was a “silver bullet” solution and adopting a strategy of incremental change, in a series of practical and societally acceptable steps, is the best strategy to address a long term solution.
In the flexible packaging industry, it seems that as the complexity of the construction increases, so do the downstream recycling and waste management challenges. An example familiar to all starts with the polyethylene (PE) bag, used in most grocery stores. It can be relatively easily recycled due to its single layer composition. However, the same grocery stores contain shelves full of multi-layer packaging options used for moisture barrier protection of the contents. These cannot be recycled because materials in addition to polyethylene are used to generate the moisture protection the barrier film is designed to deliver. However, many of the more complex flexible packaging structures are candidates for waste-to-energy conversion technologies such as gasification. Whether it’s recycling, waste-to-energy conversion, composting or landfill disposal, the opportunities for responsibly handling flexible packaging in the waste stream are becoming as diverse as the materials themselves.
LPS Industries was an early adopter of environmentally friendly practices from both a product and process standpoint. On the product front, they have built out their packaging and shipping supplies portfolio over the last 10 years with products that contain recycled material or are biodegradable while continually evaluating new barrier materials for their brand owner customers. Examples of the processes include installing a rooftop solar energy system in 2010 that offsets annual CO2 emissions by more than one million pounds and converting to a solventless lamination process that eliminates the production of VOC’s and their requisite disposal while providing a safer environment for their workforce.
Ardman concluded, “While there is no “silver bullet” for this complex challenge, LPS Industries will continue to work closely with our suppliers and customers and actively participate through our trade association to influence evolving regulations. Our goal is to continually identify and implement smart, eco-friendly improvements in support of decreasing the impact of flexible packaging on the waste stream.”