Brands and countries

The need for more sustainable flexible packaging is top of mind for converters, brand owners and consumers alike. Each of the three leading options has its benefits and challenges. Take a closer look at flexible PE recycling, flexible paper recycling and industrial compostable packaging to understand how each one impacts you.

With the government’s 2030 sustainable, flexible packaging initiatives looming, U.S. brand owners are increasingly interested in working with converters that can help them accomplish their goals. For a converter, this means finding material suppliers that offer the right components to meet sustainability objectives without sacrificing your packaging’s performance or impacting production.

However, brand owners may find various package applications and product needs are best suited to differing sustainable packaging options. As a converter—and a responsible partner—you want to explore each option fully. To meet that challenge, you will need clear insight into each option’s pros and cons and what they could mean for adhesive selection.

At present, the leading options for moving the industry toward more sustainable flexible packaging are:
  1. Flexible PE recycling
  2. Flexible paper recycling
  3. Industrial compostable packaging
Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Option #1: Flexible PE Recycling

Of the three end-of-life packaging options currently available, recyclable PE (polyethylene) has one big advantage: The technology already exists and is in use. This can help make it easy for you to implement from the perspective of the adhesive and overall package construction. When recycled, the packaging avoids landfills and can be used to make new products.

Other benefits of flexible PE recycling can include energy conservation, decreased petroleum use and a reduction in CO2 emissions. This is because flexible packaging typically uses less material, and, in some respects, has a lower carbon footprint than rigid packaging. In addition, recycling cuts the need to extract and process additional raw material into PE.

However, there are a few challenges with this packaging option that you’ll want to keep in mind:
  1. Consumers in general don’t have a good perception of this format. First and foremost, this is because it’s plastic. Additionally, PE films can only be recycled at store drop-off recycling locations, which some consumers may not want to do—assuming they even know how. As a result, it’s hard to gauge how much recyclable PE will actually be diverted from landfills.
  2. The Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) has announced new certification bylaws for determining recyclable PE packaging, which now includes criteria for adhesives. (Find more information at In the past, adhesives weren’t a factor, as they were believed not to affect recycling streams. However, this perception has changed. The new bylaws introduce the need for additional testing to include adhesives, which many in the industry may not be prepared to meet, given its newness. For laminating adhesives in particular, the APR is still in the process of creating its new testing criteria. Once assessment guidelines are developed, adhesive suppliers will need to confirm their products meet the requirements. Adjustments may also be explored, depending on the results.

Option #2: Flexible Paper Recycling

Unlike PE, paper has a positive consumer perception. Not only is it bio-based, but it offers the simplicity of curbside recycling pick-up. This allows families to recycle easily, which increases the likelihood of the packaging avoiding landfills. In addition, some types of paper can be both recyclable and compostable. This versatility can double the end-of-life choices available.

However, there are also a few challenges with this packaging option that you’ll want to keep in mind:
  1. It’s unclear at this juncture what types of paper, if any, can create a freshness barrier while remaining recyclable. (Barriers help to protect the product from exposure to oxygen, moisture and other elements that can cause spoilage, contamination and product degradation.) Further, even if a paper solution is found, it still may not work for every packaging application without a new innovation in the barrier space. This is because paper does not possess the barrier qualities needed for all applications, such as high barrier or oxygen/humidity-sensitive food products.
  2. In the meantime, to overcome paper barrier issues and create a satisfactory barrier, converters have turned to the use of coatings. However, many coatings, such as polyethylene, paraffin-based waxes, silicones and fluorochemicals, are not considered environmentally friendly. Additionally, others are not even recyclable, which means the paper cannot be recycled depending on which coating technology they’re using.
  3. Paper also can be challenging to use, because of strike in, which is when the coating sinks into the paper, rendering it ineffective. To avoid this, the paper needs to be able to withstand the coating so that both the coating and adhesive can offer their functional properties.
  4. Western Michigan University, the entity responsible for creating paper recyclability guidelines, developed a test standard based on rigid cardboard only. It was not designed with flexible packaging in mind and doesn’t take into account its thinner basis weight papers and coatings. However, all paper packaging is tested to this standard. So, until new testing criteria is developed, converters and suppliers may have difficulty determining their package’s recyclability.

Option #3: Industrial compostable packaging

For many, composting has great appeal. It can divert organic waste from landfills and instead allow the packaging to be converted into nutrient-rich compost. Another advantage is that compostable materials are generally made from plant-based, renewable resources.

Some commercial facilities and closed-loop arenas (such as stadiums) already take advantage of industrial composting. Because of their volume, they can collect qualifying items in designated bins and bring them to an industrial composting site.

However, there are a few challenges with this packaging option that you’ll want to keep in mind:
  1. There is currently no infrastructure to support a home collection stream for industrial composting in the United States, making it hard for consumers to compost. Until states and communities address the issue, efforts put in by converters to create industrial compostable packaging for consumers will be largely unfulfilled, with the materials still ending up in landfills.
  2. Because compostable packaging by nature is designed to fully degrade, it will have a shortened shelf life. This can make compostable packaging less suitable for items that need to be preserved longer. Therefore, some in the industry consider industrial composting to be the least likely of the three options to succeed, except in select instances.

Positioning yourself for success

Currently, there is no clear packaging winner among the three options. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot work with your brands to move the industry forward. Knowing the pros and cons of each option will allow you to decide when and how to best support brand owner requests for more sustainable flexible packaging.

Additionally, you can benefit from selecting the right materials—including the adhesive—for each specific packaging option. Doing so can help you accomplish each one as efficiently as possible when the time comes. That’s why you need industry partners with the resources and know-how to help you accomplish your goals.

Fortunately, our Bostik adhesive experts are here to help you address all three packaging options. In particular:
  1. We are active in a variety of leading organizations, including the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) and BPI (previously Biodegradable Products Institute). This participation keeps us up to date on the latest developments, often before they hit the media. We are glad to share our knowledge of what needs to be tested and what does not, as well as where to get the information you need.
  2. We are actively engaged in sustainable and sustainably sourced adhesive development and exploring how these can be used in flexible packaging applications. For example, our R&D teams are already leveraging information gained from our fully compostable adhesive for rigid packaging applications.
  3. We have created an internal biodegradation process. It allows us to evaluate the adhesive and overall packaging you provide to determine the extent to which it will break down once in the field. To give you peace of mind, we can also confirm if a product meets the BPI requirement of being 90% degraded within 180 days.
While there may be no clear leader at the moment, flexible PE recycling, flexible paper recycling and industrial compostable packaging continue to be pursued on multiple fronts. Understanding—and exploring—all three sustainable end-of-life options helps keep the industry moving forward, especially since each sustainable alternative that comes to fruition may well become the best practice for numerous packaging applications.

If you have any questions about these options or the adhesives for them:
Contact a Bostik expert

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