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Sustainable Packaging: An In-Depth Look At What You Need To Know

As lawmakers and consumers continue to call for environmental sustainability and reduced landfill waste, business owners are looking to flexible plastic packaging (FPP) to safeguard natural resources and meet customer demand.

Traditional FPP delivers some environmentally friendly benefits (fewer natural resources used in manufacturing, cheaper transportation-related costs and reduced landfill discards, among others), but they are not typically considered sustainable. Consumers instead are being greenwashed into thinking all standing plastic pouches and film options are Earth-friendly, but often they are not.

Indeed, time is of the essence for business owners to use recyclable materials. Under California’s recycling plan, one of the most aggressive in the nation, 75% of all single-use plastic packaging and products must be recyclable or compostable by 2030. The plan also calls for 75% recycling, composting or source reduction of solid waste from 1989 levels by 2020.

Most barrier pouches in stores today are produced from varying substrate layers that cannot be separated during the recycling process. As a result, they cannot be recycled. To be sustainable, plastic packaging must fall into two main categories: Recyclable or compostable. A third type, degradable, is banned in California and other states. The term is often considered greenwashing.

What do those terms mean? And what type of sustainable packaging do you need? Here’s a look at each type – along with their pros and cons – to help you decide:

Recyclable

Recycled materials — waste that is converted into a product — are often considered to be the epitome of sustainability. Examples of recyclable plastic packaging include monolayer films and 100% PE barrier films and pouches.

Monolayer films are made from a single layer of LDPE, LLDPE, HDPE or polypropylene, which protects against oxygen transfer (OTR), water vapor transfer (WVTR) and gaseous or greasy residue transfer. While monolayer films are economical and easy to recycle, their OTR and WVTR barriers are not as high as multilayer films.

For business owners seeking superior protection from OTR, WVTR and gaseous or greasy substances, stand-up 100% PE barrier films and pouches (multilayer) help extend shelf life and are fully recyclable. However, they are more costly than non-recyclable multilayer films.

Compostable

When waste completely disintegrates by the actions of a living organism (microbes), the results are organic components of soil that can nourish plant life.

Compostable plastics, made from corn starch, sugar cane or wheat, are designed to break down in nature into biological elements. But they must be composted under the right conditions, which includes include heat, light and oxygen, or they will not decompose. Standard landfills do not offer the right conditions.

Cellophane, the most widely known compostable plastic, breaks down in a compost pile because it is made from cellulose. Uncoated cellophane film disintegrates in nature in one to two months, on average. Coated cellophane breaks down in three to six months. Cellophane offers high-temperature, oil and grease resistance and provides a good moisture and oxygen barrier.

On a state and federal level, products marked as compostable must meet high standards, including ASTM D6400. The Federal Trade Commission and the state of California require products identified as compostable to have scientific evidence to back up the claim.

Degradable

 

Many states, including California, have banned the use of degradable and biodegradable plastics due to the insufficient data required to understand the true environmental impacts of the product.

 

When waste breaks down from a large compound to smaller ones, it is considered degradable. When degradable plastics crumble, they don’t disintegrate into nature. Instead, degradable plastics form microplastics that remain in the environment. Degradable plastics account for only a fraction of the plastics market because of the high cost and limited options for recycling.

Plastics considered degradable can be either bio-based (sometimes called bioplastics) or chemical-based (using a degradable plastics additive).

Bioplastics are made from either polylactic acid (PLA) derived from sugar cane or polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) derived from microorganisms. Researchers see great promise in bio-based plastics because they have possible environmental benefits. Today, however, high front-end and back-end infrastructure costs make bioplastics cost prohibitive. Further research is needed to define its role in environmental protection.

Chemical-based plastics are designed by adding chemical compounds to PE, PET, PP and other plastics. When exposed to heat or light, plastics that are labeled photo-degradable, oxo-degradable and landfill degradable begin breaking down. However, chemical-based degradable plastics can compromise plastics recycling systems if they are mixed with non-degradable plastics. More research must be conducted to substantiate the environmental benefits.

Eco-Friendly Packaging Solutions

Research shows that consumers want sustainable packaging and are willing to pay more for it.

According to a July 2019 Consumer Action national poll, 73% of consumers consider helping the environment to be an important factor in their purchasing decisions. A report by BillerundKorsnäs, a Swedish pulp and paper manufacturer famed for challenging conventional packaging with recycled alternatives, finds that 72% of consumers are willing to pay up to 20% more for products with sustainable packaging.

Because most stand-up pouches are produced from varying substrate layers that cannot be separated during the recycling process, they are not recyclable.

Great American Packaging’s Eco-Films line provides an ecologically friendly alternative to non-recyclable multilayer packaging. The Eco-Films line uses 100% PE barrier films and stand-up pouches.

Eco-Films meet the CalRecycle 75% Initiative and provide high performance qualities including:

  • Heat Resistance
  • Low seal initiation temperature and broad sealing window
  • Good stiffness
  • Excellent moisture and oxygen barrier
  • Reclosable options
  • Custom printing options

Eco-Films products are suitable for a variety of industries, ranging from candies, frozen foods and nuts to home goods, personal care and pet foods.

Eco-Solutions with GAP

Great American Packaging can help you choose the best sustainable packaging for your needs.

Ready to talk about your new project? Contact one of our product management consultants today.