The irony of flexible pouches

By Robert Lilienfeld in Sustainable Packaging on March 05, 2015

Pouches are under attack from some in the environmental community. Eco-Insights blogger Robert Lilienfeld reminds us of the importance of remaining flexible.


Take a walk through your local Whole Foods, Sprouts, Vitamin Cottage or Trader Joe’s. What do such earth friendly, nutritious foods as organic gluten-free muffin mix, hemp and chia seeds, golden berries, kale and bean chips, responsibly caught tuna, organic granola, free range chicken and organic baby foods have in common?

They’re all packaged in flexible pouches.

Yes, those same multi-material pouches that environmental groups lambast Kraft for using to package its Capri Sun beverages.

Ironic, isn’t it, that a major food producer is given so much grief for packaging that has become a staple among companies whose value propositions are based on providing a highly educated, affluent and environmentally concerned clientele with wholesome, organic, responsibly grown and therefore sustainable foods?

Why would these environmentally sensitive companies use the same type of flexible packaging that Kraft is being criticized for using? Let’s consider a simple example.

I purchased two 5-oz containers of tuna. One was a steel can with paper wrapper, the other a flexible pouch (foil/LDPE laminate). I emptied the containers (and made tuna salad), cleaned them and weighed them. Then, I gave credit for recycling, based on the latest EPA recycling numbers: 71% for the steel can and 0% for the pouch. The result is net discards, or, more commonly, the stuff headed to a landfill.

The finding? Even with 0% recycling, the pouch produced about 30% fewer discards by weight than did the can. So, once you do the math, you can’t blame pouches for creating too much waste simply because they’re not recyclable. Maybe these New Age food companies are on to something!

By the way, the real issue here isn’t which is the better package. That’s for consumers to decide, as each of these containers has its end-user and end-of-life strengths and weaknesses.

The real question is whether or not each of these containers conserves economic and environmental resources by efficiently protecting the product inside, thus ensuring that 100% of that product can be consumed as expected.

Ironically, I bet that the answer for both of these packages is “yes.”

What do you think? Please comment below.


Missed one of Bob's blogs? Read them here.


Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved with the concept of sustainable packaging for more than 20 years. He is currently editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a marketing and communications consultant to AMERIPEN and other organizations, and is a professional photographer.

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The photo you show contain bags that have a recycling symbol printed on the back of them which is misleading to the consumer. It is my experience that these types of companies are uneducated on the packaging types and environmental impact and do not choose their packaging wisely.
Very good analysis and you can also add the energy required to produce a steel can vs. flexible film and transportation costs of the cans vs. film.
Good stuff Bob. It's still amazing to me however that the 'armchair environmentalist' and the public at large misses the point on all of this. 'Recyclability' and 'landfill avoidance' are really not the issue. Preservation of natural resources and carbon footprint should be the real focus. Anyone who has done their homework understands that landfill is not the problem yet the public (and, hence the large, 'eco-conscious' retailers) continue to falsely zero in recyclability as the holy grail.
I bought Heinz Ketchup in Flexible Packaging and found that there was still so much content left inside once flattened and disposed. Can you imaging how much Peanut Butter would be left inside flexible packaging if those manufacturers decided to go that route for packaging? Anything viscous inside flexible packaging would be a total bust!
I agree with the OP.
If the packaging industry would use this as the metric for eco-repsonsibility, it might do a better job of helping consumers separate fact from fiction from perception: "The real question is whether or not each of these containers conserves economic and environmental resources by efficiently protecting the product inside, thus ensuring that 100% of that product can be consumed as expected." Well written Bob
Aseptic containers are not accepted through the recycling program in my town. Cans are. Glass is, but even though the recycling center collects glass, very little of it is actually recycled because there is no place to sell the glass. They have to pay to get rid of it. This is unfortunate because glass is the safest packaging for food because it does not transfer undesirable chemicals into food.