According to FPA, flexible packaging solutions, the second largest packaging segment in the U.S., account for 18 percent of the $145 billion U.S. packaging market. Lightweight flexible packaging includes films and laminates that facilitate the shipping of higher volume products and reduce the raw materials required for production. For brands, saving on energy costs and reducing material spend is a revolutionary movement. On the manufacturing end of the production/consumption cycle, flexible packaging makes more sense because it has less negative impact on the environment than its rigid plastic counterpart. It requires less material to produce, generates less CO2 during transportation and takes up less space in landfills.

According to the FPA, flexible stand-up pouch products are 35 times more packable than glass bottles with metal lids and 21 times more packable than aluminum canning jars. This makes it possible to transport more products in less packaging. The association’s statistics also include the fact that flexible packaging uses 50 percent less energy than rigid bottles and 60 percent less plastic than rigid bottles in the production process.

And while sustainable packaging is a major argument for the flexible packaging industry, being completely environmentally responsible is still to be developed. For all consumers, recycled plastic is the answer. According to the website CompleteRecycling.com, recycled plastic uses 80 percent less energy than producing new plastic containers or bottles. But is recycling the only answer to environmental awareness? Does this apply to flexible packaging?

Flexible packaging recycling today

For now, there is no formal closed-loop system in place to handle flexible packaging recycling, especially for multi-layer, high-barrier materials, foil-stacked structures with inlaid polyethylene (PE) layers. Single-layer packaging is easier to recycle because it does not contain a central layer of aluminum foil. The recycling process for multi-layer flexible PE packaging requires more steps than traditional plastic recycling programs because it includes the separation of each layer. Each layer then needs to be analyzed, identified and recycled, and the plastic film further processed into a recyclable resin. Since a large amount of flexible packaging is used for food packaging, food contamination becomes another barrier to recycling. For most flexible packaging, the percentage of reusable packaging is actually very small due to the food contamination that permeates the current recycling system. Non-recycled polymers are sent to an oxygen-free chamber for incineration, providing emissions monitoring energy for the production floor.

Forward-thinking groups such as the Flexible Packaging Association have taken a number of great initiatives, and it is very focused on sustainable packaging. fpa is working with a number of manufacturers on packaging that is environmentally safe. The Sustainable Plastics Coalition, the Association of Post-Plastic Recyclers (APPR), and the Flexible Film Recycling Group (FFRG), are also working extremely hard to promote and conduct public education and awareness about plastic film recycling.

The Cradle to Cradle design is another innovation by organizations like Enval. Enval has found a way to fully recycle aluminum foil between polymer laminates and keep it clean. At the same time, they can produce gasoline and gas from the plastic parts for power and heat generation. This can be achieved by microwave-induced pyrolysis, but not by incineration, because there is oxide production in the process.

Manufacturers are also beginning to embrace the cradle-to-cradle design concept and are beginning to use environmentally friendly materials such as biodegradable, bio-based plastics, or biodegradable, techno-environmentally friendly materials that can be recycled without downgrading to lower grade materials. The use of plant-based materials for flexible packaging means economic growth for the agro-industry. The need for crop growth will also further promote agricultural development.

Possible optimization of flexible packaging recycling

Currently, Enval’s process of completely recycling aluminum parts and treating plastic parts using pyrolysis is the best current solution for handling multi-layer packaging waste, however, there is no solution for fully recycling plastic parts from other plastic materials.

Through pyrolysis, the charred residue formed from plastics containing inorganic materials will contain 80% liquid carbon and 20% gaseous carbon (no CO2 gas is produced due to the lack of oxygen in the chamber). This carbon can be transported to different locations depending on the liquid fuel/energy requirements. The resulting ash can be used as a component of products such as concrete pre-mix. Whereas the carbon can be used as fuel, companies often feed the mixed waste into the pyrolysis chamber to generate fuel that may not have optimal availability.

Effective ways to convert this liquid carbon fuel into a more durable, high-integrity energy source will require ongoing research.

Finding a more efficient waste treatment process (especially in pyrolysis) for flexible packaging that has a lower environmental impact is a challenging but achievable task. With the various innovations already made in the flexible packaging industry, such as pyrolysis processes that use bio-based materials to convert waste into energy, the foundation stones for further development are already in place.