Smithers Releases Study, The Future of Sustainable Flexible Packaging to 2026

AKRON, OH—Sustainability in design, use and end-of-life processing will increasingly define flexible packaging across the next five years, according to new expert insight from Smithers. This will create challenges for the whole value chain through 2026, even as the market adjusts to a market space redefined by COVID-19, and short-term disruption in the supply of raw materials in the first six months of 2021.

In its latest in-depth study, The Future of Sustainable Flexible Packaging to 2026, Smithers notes that with the emergence of circular economy models, there is a need to shift away from traditional weight reduction considerations to other strategies. It has a direct focus on actionable approaches that can be taken at all stages of the flexible packaging value chain to realize a greener tomorrow.

Flexible packaging, like the bags in this photo, will exhibit high-performance paper grades, optimized barrier performance and more functional polymer mono-materials.
Photo courtesy of Smithers

These are grouped into seven key business and technology areas:

  1. Design for recycling—including optimizing barrier performance and coatings, switching to new high-performance paper grades, and the rapid development of functional polymer mono-material packs
  2. Overcoming technical and regulatory challenges to increase the volume of recycled content used in films and other plastic formats, with a focus on low-density polyethylene (LDPE), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  3. Innovating to meet the emerging need for more reusable flexible formats in both traditional retail and the booming e-commerce segment
  4. Improving waste management via marking and collection, to boost supplies of high-grade post-consumer resin (PCR), including grades suitable for food contact applications
  5. Sustainable sourcing of feedstocks, including PCR, but also bio-based versions of existing plastics, substitution from polymer to paper substrates where plausible, and the wider use of recycled pulp in packaging papers
  6. Use, where plausible, of biodegradable flexible plastics (despite the predicted extension of prohibitions on oxo-degradable materials)
  7. Weight reduction—the economics of flexible packaging will continue to call for thinner substrates, and lifecycle analyses can highlight the CO2 savings it also gives in distribution compared to heavier rigid packaging materials

R&D in flexible packaging is being shaped by various actors—packaging converters, brand owners, governments, and ultimately consumers, Smithers observed: “The year 2025 is a key date. Many brands and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs) companies have committed to making some or all of their packaging fully recyclable by that date.”

Analysts noted, “This poses a challenge, as no universally accepted definition for ‘recyclable’ exists. The onus thus falls on the flexible packaging industry to highlight the advantages of its products and communicate how they can contribute to these circular economy goals.

“…with the emergence of circular economy models, there is a need to shift away from traditional weight reduction considerations to other strategies.”

“Furthermore, regional sensitivity is necessary. Across continents, countries and even within larger federal states, different waste management infrastructure, legislation, and consumer preferences exist. This adds a further layer of complexity to implementing effective moves to mitigate the pollution threat from flexible polymer formats.”

Development strategies that work in one region can be ineffective in others, according to market watchers. They said, “Several package development strategies are being considered to improve the sustainability of packaging. These include reductions in package weight, recyclable packaging, biodegradable packaging, sustainably sourced packaging, reusable packaging, recycled content into packaging and investments in waste management infrastructure.”

A summary of the major strategies identified by Smithers follows:

  • Reduce: This strategy to limit the amount of waste entering the environment, reducing package weight per product use, has been a fundamental strategy within the linear economy sustainability model. Light-weighting of existing flexible packs is expected to slow as priorities shift to more circular developments. More meaningful weight-saving developments, such as rigid to flexible conversions and refill packaging, are expected to intensify
  • Recyclable: Recyclable packaging is an enabler of the circular economy. Over the five-year period covered by the report, intense efforts will take place to convert current non-recyclable flexible packs to recyclable structures to avoid pending taxation, EPR fees and bans in some countries
  • Reuse: Little activity is expected to advance reusable flexible packaging up to 2026. The strategy is best suited to robust rigid packaging, which can be easily cleaned and remains undamaged after use, collection and refilling. However, flexibles in the form of refill packaging are likely to increase to enable reuse of rigid packaging by in-home refilling
  • Recycled content: Greater use of recycled content is expected in flexible packaging up to 2026 to meet public demand and avoid future taxation and legislative mandating of recycled content
  • Sustainable sourcing: Development of non-oil-based plastics is an emerging trend, especially for plastic packaging. This strategy seeks to shift manufacturing of traditional plastics, such as PE, PP, PET and others, to more sustainably sourced starting materials, such as biomass. Up to 2026, greater use of sustainable plastics is expected, though use is unlikely to move beyond single-digit percentage in flexible packaging. Recycled plastic is likely to be favored due to greater circularity. Paper-based flexible packaging is not expected to advance greatly
  • Biodegradable: Biodegradable packaging remains an important strategy for sustainable package development. It involves the use of specific materials that naturally degrade in the environment and especially in industrial composting units. In developed countries, biodegradable plastic packaging is not expected to advance greatly up to 2026, due to questionable circularity and unfavorable legislation. In developing countries, biodegradable packaging is seen as a short-term measure by brand owners to limit pollution and marine litter while waste management infrastructure is developed
  • Waste infrastructure: Improved waste management infrastructure is needed to enhance collection, sorting, recycling and energy recovery of packaging waste, and to limit pollution. This has become a key area of focus, with numerous recent examples of infrastructure development by the packaging value chain

Investment in waste infrastructure by the package supply chain will be increasingly important to 2026. In developed countries it increases recyclate availability; in developing countries, it limits pollution