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Supply Chain Management

Flexible Packaging Is Leading the Way in Sustainability

Technology and innovation created flexible packaging, and they continue to define it. Flexible packaging is at the forefront of packaging trends in product protection, design and performance, consumer convenience, and sustainability, all of which positively impact the environment, consumers, and businesses. 

Flexible packaging is used for many of the products in our grocery stores today. Today’s shoppers buy bagged salad greens that stay crisp for days, frozen vegetables that steam right in their packages, and bags of snacks that stay fresh with zipper closures. Consumers are conscious of the products they purchase and the packaging that holds and protects those products. They are seeking the convenience, extended shelf life, and sustainability features that flexible packaging provides.

Not all packages are the same

Different products require different types of protection. Some flexible packaging is made from a single material; however, in some cases, multiple materials are required to provide the appropriate barrier and protection. With multiple materials packaging, each layer performs a different function in protecting and preserving the product. By using materials with properties geared toward specific performance, manufacturers can meet their customers’ varying needs, including product protection, contamination prevention, extended freshness, puncture, tear and burst resistance, and tensile and seal strength. 

Examples of customization include improvements in film barriers for refrigerated foods that keep meat fresh for up to 18 days; intelligent sensor film that can warn consumers when meat and fish are past their freshness dates; barrier films that scavenge food odors and prevent leaks; and  medication and medical devices that can be easily and safely dispensed through sterilized, tera-open packaging engineered for dosing compliance, to name just a few. 

The circle of cycle

When assessing sustainability, examining the full life cycle of a package is critical. Flexible packaging is the optimum environmental choice because it uses fewer resources, generates fewer emissions, and “creates less waste in the first place®.” Flexible packaging starts with using fewer resources and has the ability to package the most product in the least amount of packaging possible, positively impacting municipal solid waste generation, energy use in manufacturing, and transportation and greenhouse gas emissions. Producing a flexible food service pouch requires 75 percent less energy and generates just one-tenth of CO2 emissions during production than a metal can for the equivalent amount of product. One-and-a-half pounds of flexible packaging will package the same amount of beverage or liquid foods as 50 pounds of glass. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that up to 40 percent of food in the United States is wasted — flexible packaging reduces this waste by protecting food longer. The shelf life of cucumbers is extended from 3 days to 14 days when wrapped in polyethylene shrink wrap; bananas last 36 days in perforated polyethylene bags versus 5 days unpackaged; food waste is reduced from 11 percent to 0.8 percent when bread is packaged in biaxially-oriented polypropylene film; and packaging grapes in perforated bags leads to a 20 percent reduction in in-store waste.

A sustaining material

When compared to traditional packaging types, flexible packaging’s sustainability benefits really stand out. A rigid polyethylene terephthalate container for laundry detergent pods emits 726 percent more greenhouse gases than a flexible pouch with zipper; a steel can for packaging coffee consumes 1,605 percent more water in production than a flexible pouch; and 31 percent more thermoformed tubs for baby food packaging ends up in a landfill compared to that of a flexible pouch with fitment. 

Results of environmental cases studies on a variety of packaging types and products show that flexible packaging, when compared to other packaging formats, has preferable environmental attributes for carbon impact, fossil fuel usage, water usage, product to package ratio, and material to landfill. 

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