As consumers demand products that tread more lightly on the planet, they are also looking for packaging that does the same. Packaging designed to reduce waste is an effective way to signal to a consumer that a brand is conscious of their environmental impact.
More brands are choosing flexible packaging (or pouches) to send that signal. The market for flexible packaging was valued at $230B in 2020 and is projected to grow 6.1% annually over this decade. These non-rigid pouches are made with far less plastic and, thanks to their light weight and flexibility, can be transported more efficiently than rigid packaging. Flexible packaging’s versatility has driven its adoption in the food and beverage, household, and beauty industries. However, lacking a profitable recycling process, pouches are more likely to end up in a landfill than their rigid counterparts, albeit representing far less waste per unit.
As more brands adopt flexible packaging, it’s important to understand the potential benefits pouches bring to production efficiency and sustainability while acknowledging recycling and branding challenges.
The key difference between flexible and rigid packaging is material use. Pouches use far less plastic than rigid containers because they are designed to have thin, flexible walls. For example, L’Occitane’s refillable pouches boast a 98% reduction in packaging compared to their original packaging. This reduction in plastic is a win for the manufacturer who can spend less on packaging and load more product onto fewer trucks—lowering their production, storage, and transportation costs.
Pouches also offer some clear environmental benefits. Less plastic and more efficient transportation means less waste production and less fossil fuel usage for products to get on store shelves or in online shopping carts.
The Flexible Packaging Association, the people who are really pushing pouches, puts it succinctly, “Flexible packaging requires less water and energy to manufacture and transport, and generates small quantities of greenhouse gases on its way to market. Thanks to its efficiency in product to package ratios, flexible packaging ultimately results in less consumer waste being sent to landfills.”
While pouches are cost-efficient and have the potential to generate less waste, recycling challenges complicate their eco-friendliness.
Pouches are usually made of both recyclable and non-recyclable materials laminated together, so they can’t be recycled as easily as rigid plastics. Public recyclers still don’t have the technology to break down these laminates into their constituent, reusable materials. While a pouch’s light weight is easy on the environment, it’s also a disincentive to the commercial recyclers who would have to collect a high volume of pouches to extract enough material to make a profit.
Recycling difficulties challenge flexible packaging’s claim to sustainability, but brands can face a more immediate problem in using pouches—customers. Flexible packaging is cheaper to make, and to some customers, it looks that way. Valuable products in non-valuable packaging can damage a customer’s image of a brand, especially if that brand is known for luxe packaging. To take advantage of the cost savings of flexible packaging without scaring away customers, many brands sell products in familiar packaging and offer refills in pouches.
The refills-as-pouches model allows brands to use flexible packaging to expand their product offering without forcing change on their customers too quickly.
Flexible packaging will only grow as the world works to curb plastic waste. By 2022, non-biodegradable bags will be banned in all of China. In the US, a new wave of proposed state and national laws would limit new plastic production and regulate the types of material that can be labeled as recyclable.
While the advance of bioplastics—plastics not made from petroleum—promises a future for plastic not tied to the fossil fuel industry, it doesn’t address the need for a viable recycling model for flexible packaging. In the meantime, pouches still offer a cost-effective, resilient way for brands to bring their products to market without using excess plastic from the outset.
Interested in exploring the pouches and bioplastics that would work for your brand? Shop the Novi marketplace for samples today!