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The problem with the popularity of pouches

Clif Family Winery’s Climber Wine Pouches

TerraCycle’s food packaging recycling programs began with drink pouches. Those programs have expanded from Capri Sun and Honest Kids drink pouches, to Flavia Fresh Packs, Sprout baby food pouches, and Method Cleaner Refill packs. Clif Family Winery is soon launching a Brigade for their Climber Wine Pouches and other wine pouch packaging. Nowadays, pouches are in every aisle of every big-box retailer. They’re convenient, durable, lightweight, affordable, an all around “win”… that is until it is time to recycle them.

As a packaging professional and recycling expert, I am experiencing serious cognitive dissonance over the almighty pouch. The environmental 3 R’s - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - are in that order for a reason. It is better for the planet to reduce than it is to reuse, which is better than recycling. By using a pouch, we are drastically reducing packaging weight; for example, Kenco’s Eco-Refill Packs have 97 percent less packaging weight and Method’s new refill packs use (on average) 83 percent less plastic, water and energy.

Still, I know that despite these savings, these pouches aren’t recyclable, which means they’ll end up in a landfill or incinerated. As both an environmentalist and businessman, I am divided. Does the social good your customer feels get erased when they have to toss out that pouch? Recyclability is just one aspect to focus on when choosing packaging for a product, whether it be laundry detergent, soaps, food, drink, etc. Pouches are popular for good reasons, and since they’re not likely to go away soon, the question arises: to whom does the onus of solving this packaging problem fall? Should packaging professionals try to find other, more easily recyclable packaging to use? Can pouches be made from a single polymer like PP or PET so they can be recycled? Or should municipal recyclers try to find a solution that can be widely implemented?

The fact that pouches are popular across the world (not just for juice but also for things like crackers, nuts, detergents, baking ingredients and even cat food), and that people worldwide are seeking a solution, speaks to the breadth and depth of the problem. Everyone is looking for an answer.

There’s living proof that the pouches can be recycled–and it’s not just TerraCycle that can do this. While TerraCycle shreds and melts and pelletizes, there are also co-ops that make woven bags across the world. TerraCycle is working in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. to solve the pouch problem. In the Philippines, drink pouches are incredibly popular, and they’re made into “doy bags” (similar to tote bags) so that they don’t end up littering the streets.

When we know they can be recycled, one answer is clear: There’s no excuse for them to end up in the landfill. Right now, private recyclers handle the bulk of this waste stream because most recyclers are not setup to take pouches. A similar challenge exists with wax-coated cartons. In 2008, only 18 percent of U.S. households had access to carton recycling programs. Today, thanks in part to the Carton Council (www.recyclecartons.com), this number has more than doubled to nearly 37 percent, but that still means that only one-third of Americans can recycle their milk and juice cartons. While not enough, it is far outreaches the ability to recycle pouches.

Since the use of pouches is widespread, should packaging professionals make the pouches more easily recyclable, or should municipal recyclers expand programs and technologies to include pouches in municipal recycling? How could they work together (perhaps with private recyclers) to do this? As a nod to the Carton Council it could be called the Pouch Partnership.

The easy answer to that question: All parties should be making great efforts to integrate and come up with a solution. I want to hear what you all think as packaging professionals. What’s the best way to make this happen? How do we approach this solvable problem?

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