What Is Flexible Packaging?
At some point today you’ve probably encountered flexible or mixed-materials packaging. Whether it’s the toothpaste tube you squeezed before brushing your teeth, the juice pouch you packed in your child’s lunch bag, or the carton you poured your morning orange juice from, this kind of packaging is everywhere. Flexible packaging is just what it sounds like—a container whose shape can be readily changed. Flexible packaging may be made of one material, such as plastic, or of some combination of plastic, paper, and metal, usually layered or fused together. When a combination of materials is used, whether the package is flexible or not, it is known as mixed-materials packaging. Plastic-coated to-go coffee cups, milk cartons, and single-serve brew cups are common examples of packaging that is not flexible but that is made with a combination of materials.
The combination of different materials makes for a lightweight, durable package that is especially good for maintaining freshness. Compared with more traditional containers, flexible packaging typically uses fewer materials overall and is lighter in weight, which means it takes less energy and fuel to transport. The layering of plastic or aluminum with paper or cardboard also helps food stay fresher longer, which leads to less food waste related to spoilage.
Because of its advantages, flexible packaging is one of the fastest-growing segments of the packaging industry, and much of that growth comes courtesy of the food industry, which uses it to package all sorts of food and drink products. Although they have major energy and fuel-related benefits, flexible and mixed-materials packaging poses a serious challenge when it comes to recycling.
A Recycling Challenge
Because this packaging is often layered or fused together, it is very difficult to separate for recycling. The ideal waste stream for recycling is a single stream of pure materials—just one type of plastic, for example. When other materials, like paper or metal, are mixed in, it is often referred to as “contaminated” and is more difficult to recycle, as each layer must be separated and individually recycled.
Currently, the ability to recycle most flexible packaging is hindered by the lack of facilities and technology necessary to separate the materials. Although some mixed-materials packages do have recycling symbols, that doesn’t guarantee that recycling for that type of packaging is available in your community. Check with your local waste management facility to find out what kind of containers it accepts.
Some specialized recycling facilities can handle cartons, such as those used for milk and juice, and in some areas these may be collected through general recycling pickup. Many major brands that use cartons have banded together to form the Carton Council to help increase the recycling rate of these products. The special recycling process includes mixing cartons with water until they break down, then pulling the plastics and aluminum from the top of the mixture, leaving paper pulp behind. To find out if recycling for cartons is available in your community, visit recyclecartons.com.
Even though some mixed-materials packaging can be recycled with special technology, others cannot. Single-serve brew cups, for instance, are not currently recyclable, but the company that makes K-Cups has pledged they will be recyclable by 2020. It’s estimated that 9 billion single-serve brew cups ended up in landfills in 2014 alone. Paper coffee cups with polyethylene plastic liners—the standard at most coffee shops—are also not easily recyclable. Coffeehouse giant Starbucks has been working on the issue for years and aims to have a solution in 2015.
What You Can Do
Resources vary by state and municipality, so contact your local waste management facilities to learn what type of flexible and mixed-materials packaging recycling options might be available where you live. Some facilities will describe what can be recycled by container shape (like a carton), or by specific brand name, such as Tetra-Pak. If cartons and other mixed-materials packages can be recycled in your area, they are a great choice because their lighter weight often means it took less fuel to deliver that package to your local store. However, if you cannot recycle these items, you may want to keep an eye out for similar products in single-material packaging that can be recycled.
- Allentown Recycles
- American Packaging Corporation
- Carton Council
- Carton Council
- Flexible Packaging Association
- James Hamblin. “A Brewing Problem.” The Atlantic March 2, 2015
- Keurig Green Mountain
- Nature Conservancy
- Packaging Digest
- Recycling Council of British Columbia
- Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation