Tackling the Challenge of Flexible Plastic Packaging 

Flexible plastic packaging plays an important role in keeping everyday consumer food products safe and fresh, often with lower greenhouse gas emissions than alternative materials. However, flexible plastic is challenging to recycle, and it is this type of plastic that disproportionately accounts for the plastic waste accumulating in the environment, causing problems for ecosystems and human health. Today, flexible plastic makes up over 50% of the total plastic packaging market, and is expected to increase with increased consumer demand for convenience food and online retailing. 

The Plastic Waste Coalition recognises this is a highly complex topic with no easy answers, and that it requires different upstream and downstream solutions to solve issues of recycling and mismanaged waste resulting in plastic leakage. Such solutions need to consider local market contexts in order to be effective.   

Launched in 2022, the Coalition’s Flexibles Workstream takes a four-pronged approach:

  • Reduce and re-design: At present, most flexible plastic packaging is not designed for recycling, as different materials and multiple layers are required for product protection. Three of the Golden Design Rules developed by the Coalition are specific to flexible packaging: Golden Design Rule 6 provides clear guidance on flexible plastic design-for-recycling, while Golden Design Rule 3 focuses on the elimination of excess headspace reducing the use of plastics, and GDR 4 focuses on the reduction of plastic overwraps. 
  • Recycling Systems: the economic case for collecting, sorting and recycling post-consumer flexible plastic packaging is often not strong enough to finance the infrastructure necessary to recycle flexible plastic. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes are a policy tool which aim to hold producers accountable for financing the net cost of collecting and recycling their plastic products and packaging, and to incentivise better design. Around the globe, many governments and policy makers are rolling out EPR schemes, whose differing structures and commitments often result in duplication and misalignment and do not consider flexible consumer packaging adequately. Our workstream is working to help governments understand the industry view on EPR programmes and promote harmonisation by developing an aligned framework for optimal and fair EPR schemes for plastic packaging materials, with a focus on flexibles. 
  • Innovation (e.g. new product delivery models, new materials, policy innovations): the Coalition recognizes that EPR is not a silver bullet solution and that it comes with several uncertainties. As infrastructure scales, other solutions will still be required to solve for different challenges impeding recyclability and circularity for flexible plastic. The coalition will explore innovative approaches for flexible plastic packaging and assess the role of collective pre-competitive action in scaling them up. 
  • Recycling Technology: In recent years, chemical recycling has emerged as one of the potential solutions to the issues surrounding the end-of-life disposal of plastics, which could effectively complement mechanical recycling in achieving a circular economy, especially food-grade packaging. As part of their commitment to driving progress towards realising a circular economy, members of the Coalition hope to play a role in making a positive case for a credible and safe chemical recycling system. Besides a vision paper, which encourages the development of new plastics recycling technologies that meet six key principles for credible, safe and environmentally sound development, the coalition published an independently commissioned Life Cycle Assessment study. This study demonstrates that in Europe, scaling up pyrolysis-based chemical recycling for hard-to-recycle plastics that would otherwise end up in waste-to-energy incineration facilities can be achieved and that there would be positive climate benefits from doing so. Find out more about the Chemical Recycling workstream, here.

The Coalition works closely with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and many other like-minded organisations on this topic, to ensure that we are not duplicating existing efforts, and to keep our own efforts focused where we can lend our collective action and voices to accelerate systems shift to circularity. We welcome exchange with others working to progress on this topic.