Waste reduction more sustainable than recycling!?

According to a study commissioned by Flexible Packaging Europe from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg (ifeu), flexible plastic packaging could play a key role in waste reduction and global warming mitigation.

Flexible plastic packaging is not easy to recycle as it is often made from multi-layer materials and existing recycling logistics are not yet adapted to them. To improve this, for example by separate collection, the industry has set up an initiative, CEFLEX. According to Jean-Paul Duquet, head of sustainability agendas at Flexible Packaging Europe (FPE), recycling for sustainability is only one aspect however. The updated ifeu study seems to agree with him.

Reduced amount of waste

The study includes a scenario in which all non-flexible packaging for Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) is replaced by flexible packaging wherever possible. Since carbonated beverages cannot be packaged in this way, the beverage segment was not included in the study (conservative approach). The study shows that substitution of all rigid packaging of non-beverage FMCG at EU level could reduce the amount of waste from primary packaging by 21 million metric tons annually. This would reduce the total amount of primary packaging from non-drink FMCG in the EU by 70 percent. This underlines the potential of flexible packaging for reducing packaging waste.

Reduced global warming potential

According to the study, such a theoretical substitution would also be a way of curbing global warming: In a life cycle assessment (LCA), the study concludes that this would reduce the total global warming potential (GWP) of all European FMCG primary packaging (excluding beverages) by 33 percent – even if it is assumed for the purposes of the demonstration that flexible packaging is not recycled. The opposite scenario – the substitution of all flexible packaging for non-beverage FMCG in the EU by rigid packaging formats – would, according to the study, increase the overall GWP of primary packaging by about 30 percent. And this is despite the significantly higher actual recycling rates of rigid packaging. Even if rigid packaging were recycled completely, i.e. 100 percent, this theoretical substitution would still lead to a 14 percent higher GWP, the study states.

Waste avoidance and resource conservation

The authors of the study come to the conclusion that it is not only the recyclability of packaging that is important, but also and especially its avoidance. This could be achieved by increasing the use of flexible packaging, which would not only lead to less waste of primary packaging, the authors say, but also to a lower carbon footprint and lower resource consumption. Inversely, focusing exclusively on recyclability and the achievement of recycling targets could lead to flexible packaging being replaced by more easily recyclable rigid packaging. This approach would be clearly detrimental in terms of global warming and resource efficiency and would run counter to the objective of avoiding the generation of packaging waste as set out in the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive.

Jean-Paul Duquet, Director of Sustainability at FPE, commented on the study as follows: “Prevention is on top of the waste hierarchy defined by the European Commission’s Waste Framework Directive, before other approaches like reuse, recycling and energy recovery. The priority accorded to prevention before recycling is highly relevant for packaging, as this study demonstrates. Flexible packaging perfectly fulfils this prevention requirement and proves to be a major part of the solution to today’s challenges facing the packaging sector and the environment. Not to mention the important ongoing efforts to reach high recyclability performances and make flexible packaging even more resource efficient.”