Hmm. Is There a Market for Recycled-Content in Flexible Packaging?

It was a “Eureka!” moment for me when three separate thoughts formed into one new idea about flexible packaging and a possible path in its sustainable future.

Lisa McTigue Pierce, Executive Editor

April 6, 2017

9 Min Read
Hmm. Is There a Market for Recycled-Content in Flexible Packaging?

It was a “Eureka!” moment for me when three separate thoughts formed into one new idea about flexible packaging and a possible path in its sustainable future.

Three separate thoughts

1. Flexible packaging recyclability is hot. End-of-life scenarios for flexible packaging have recently focused on its recyclability, which is a challenge because of the complexity of many structures. But we are seeing huge improvement in this area.

At the March 2017 annual meeting of the Flexible Packaging Assn., Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director at The Dow Chemical Co., gave an update on where the industry is at right now, with news of many current projects.

Jeff Wooster

Once such project is a collaboration to improve the technology needed to sort flexible packaging at Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) using the existing recycling collection infrastructure. A workplan and baseline testing in 2016 saw encouraging results and identified end-use opportunities for collected material.

The project was implemented by RRS (Resource Recycling Systems), coordinated by the American Chemistry Council, sponsored by Dow, Nestlé, P&G, PepsiCo, SC Johnson, Sealed Air and Amcor, and with input from the Flexible Packaging Assn. (FPA), the Assn. of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and SPI: The Plastics Industry Assn.

Scale up of the pilot plan is underway. According to Wooster, the key takeaway is “Adding flexible packaging sortation to an existing single-stream MRF is a small incremental cost.”

2. Demand for recycled content fuels material recycling. In some markets, recycled-content demand has been integral to growing an economically viable business for recycling that specific material—polyethylene terephthalate (PET) beverage bottles, for example.

But I can’t remember seeing any flexible packaging innovations that include recycled content as a key component (if do you, please comment below). At the same FPA meeting, 19 packages were recognized in the 2017 Flexible Packaging Achievement Awards and none of them talked about recycled content.

3. Using recycled-content in packaging is an important goal for many brand owners, which is why we included a section on this topic in the Packaging Digest 2017 Sustainable Packaging Study (take the survey now!). Early results show the majority of respondents (69% as of Mon., Mar. 27) say “Yes” when asked, “Does your sustainable packaging strategy include using recycled-content materials in your packages?”

One new idea

These three thoughts led me to ask “Is there a market for recycled-content materials in flexible packaging?” I started my quest for answers with a conversation with Wooster at the FPA meeting, and continue it here with input from others in the flexible packaging supply chain.

From the brand owner’s perspective, we hear from Kelly Murosky, packaging engineer at Seventh Generation, a company that makes sustainability a priority. It launched a recyclable pouch for dishwasher detergent pods in 2016, for example (see photo above), and recently improved the recyclability of its cartons for fabric softener sheets.

Kelly Murosky

From the recycler’s perspective, we have insights from Susan Robinson, director, public affairs, for Waste Management, the leading provider of comprehensive waste management services in North America, including recycling services. Robinson will be speaking at the upcoming SustPack 2017 conference (Apr. 24-26; Scottsdale, AZ) on “Building Trust in Recycling.”

Susan Robinson

And from the flexible packaging manufacturer’s perspective, Sal Pellingra, vp of innovation and technology, ProAmpac, tells me the company has been there, done that (developed films with PCR content)—but with limited market success so far.

Sal Pellingra

Here’s what these experts have to say about recycled-content flexible packaging.

Is there a market for post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials in flexible packaging? Why or why not?

Murosky: There is a market for post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials in flexible packaging because consumers are looking to brand owners to improve packaging sustainability, and brands are responding by reducing their use of virgin petroleum in packaging and increasing their use of PCR films. As flexible films continue to gain popularity, the market for PCR flexible films will continue to expand as well.

Robinson: Flexible packaging covers a range of products—from simple film bags to much more complex laminated “pouches”—like the zipper pouches used for many food products. Flexible packaging used for food-grade products has specific requirements for post-consumer resin (PCR), which makes it more expensive to use.

Furthermore, one of the benefits of flexible packaging is that it is designed with qualities specific to a product, which means that the resin type and laminates are varied. As a result, the cost of using PCR, the unique characteristics of the packaging and the small volumes involved have not led to use of PCR post-consumer resin in flexible packaging.

Pellingra: I believe there is a market just as there is for recyclable flexible packaging. In fact, it seems it’s almost more appropriate to use PCR than to produce recyclable flexible packaging because there isn’t an infrastructure for collecting recyclable flexible packaging unless the packaging uses the How2Recycle label program for in-store recycling.

There does seem to be some reluctance in the market to use PCR, however. It seems as if CPGs [consumer packaged goods companies] aren’t clear on the correct message to consumers or if using PCR matters to consumers. Because it’s difficult to produce an entire flexible package out of PCR, the message would be that a portion of the package uses PCR. Is that enough to warrant a change in graphics on an already cluttered graphic?

My personal feeling is that it is a step in the right direction, just as working towards recyclable packaging is—even before a recycling infrastructure is in place.

Will a demand for recycled-content materials in flexible packaging spur more flexible packaging recycling like it has in other areas of packaging (PET bottles, for example)?

Murosky: We hope it does, especially with the How2Recycle logo creating awareness among consumers that these types of packaging can be recycled with store drop-off plastic bags and films.

Robinson: Using post-consumer resin in products of all types (not just flexible packaging) is important to grow a sustainable recycling industry in the U.S. PCR use is more conducive in some materials than others—such as carpet. However, some companies have made a commitment to using PCR in their products, such as for PET water and soda bottles.

Pellingra: Just as the move to recyclable flexible packaging where there is no current infrastructure outside of the in-store recycling program, many CPGs and store brands are moving toward recyclable packaging with the common belief of the “if you build it, it will come” mentality.

Using PCR in the same way is diverting plastics from landfills and begins building the expectation that recycled materials can and will be expected to be used in products suitably designed to incorporate these resins. It seems reasonable and responsible to move in this direction. We just need some leading brands to begin “pulling” this demand from suppliers as “pushing” it has not seemed to generate growth in using PCR for flexible packaging to date.

ProAmpac developed one of the first recyclable flexible films for stand up pouches in North America with the introduction of the No. 2 Pouch back in 2011. Many companies are now offering similar versions. 

We have also developed coextruded films with up to 15% PCR incorporated for use in surface print, lamination or pouch applications.

What are some of the barriers to using recycled-content materials, specifically PCR, in new flexible packages?

Murosky: I see four hurdles:

1. Getting the proper moisture and/or oxygen barrier protection;

2. Poor aesthetics, such as film color, unwanted inclusions and print quality;

3. Converters being open to running it on their equipment;

4. Higher cost of the PCR resin.

Robinson: Perhaps the greatest barrier to using PCR is the relatively low cost of virgin resin. With the low cost and sufficient volumes of virgin resin, it is generally less expensive to use virgin resin in products than PCR.

In addition to the barriers to using post-consumer resin in manufacturing flexible packaging, recycling flexible packaging is also problematic. Plastic film generally cannot be recycled at Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) since our equipment is not designed to capture it and there are few-to-no markets for post-consumer MRF film. 

The American Chemistry Councils’ WRAP program offers an excellent alternative to curbside recycling through its “Take Back to Retail” program; however, plastic film is not compatible with curbside recycling programs.

Pellingra: There are definitely controls required to ensure that the incoming PCR resin properties are consistent. This is the biggest challenge. It’s critical to ensure the properties are consistent, and especially that carbon and gels are minimized. Any of these can affect extrusion efficiencies.

In addition, every heat history can further degrade polymers and contribute to undesirable yellowing, gels or carbon that can cause visual defects and downtime. There is a science to minimizing degradation and securing quality supply of PCR resin. Not knowing where the supply is coming from, or the traceability of the resin, can cause some manufacturing issues. Because of this, the PCR is usually incorporated into the internal layers of film or into non-specialized products such as waste and non-food bags to minimize the impact. With additives and process controls, PCR is available as an additive in film products.

Have you considered incorporating recycled-content material into your flexible packages?

Murosky: We currently use a PCR sealant layer in some of our flexible film applications. Presently, we have 25% PCR content in our baby wipes film packages.

As we look to reduce our waste impacts, we are in the process of changing many of our barrier flexible film applications to a 100% recyclable solution. Also, to meet our 2020 packaging sustainability goals of zero waste and zero virgin petroleum usage, we are diligently working to increase PCR content in all of our film packaging applications.

From these answers, it seems promising that recycled content in flexible packaging will become a consideration for sustainability-minded brand owners—just as flexible packaging recycling will continue grow as an infrastructure builds.


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About the Author(s)

Lisa McTigue Pierce

Executive Editor, Packaging Digest

Lisa McTigue Pierce is Executive Editor of Packaging Digest. She’s been a packaging media journalist since 1982 and tracks emerging trends, new technologies, and best practices across a spectrum of markets for the publication’s global community. Reach her at [email protected] or 630-272-1774.

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