Speakers: Pouch makers must be proactive on end-of-life issues

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Jim Johnson Bell

UPDATED — Plastics provide advantages when compared with other packaging, but they also have a huge problem, according to a pair of environmental consultants.

Pouches, which are being adopted more and more for a variety of consumer goods, use fewer resources compared with other packaging.

They generate less waste. And they can help protect and save product better.

But then there’s this:

When it comes to their end of life, pouches essentially have nowhere to go except for the trash in most circumstances. Or they become pollution.

“You guys have a litter problem, let’s face it,” said Victor Bell, president of Environmental Packaging International of Jamestown, R.I., at the recent Global Pouch Forum in Miami.

And without efforts to find ways to recapture used pouches on a wide scale, the industry will face problems, Bell and fellow environmental consultant Betsy Dorn told the crowd.

“The pouch might have been under the radar when there were just a few products in the marketplace, but now that almost all products are in pouches, you are going to be looked at as a major cause of this problem and you are going to be expected to do something about it,” said Dorn, director for consulting at Reclay StewardEdge Inc.

Pouches win when it comes to lifecycle analysis of packaging as well as greenhouse gas calculations. Even when considering how much material ends up going to the landfill compared with other packaging types, they also come out on top. And they win when it comes to customer appreciation and cost savings, Dorn said.

“But you are really losing on the end-of-life side of things in terms of litter, ocean debris, disposal backlash, etc.,” she said.

“The question really is what do you do? We’re recommending you become a proactive player in working on end-of-life solutions and take responsibility in this arena. Organize yourselves to do that,” she said.

“You need to be involved. You need to get to the table,” Bell said, to address the matter.

“I think we all know the do-nothing option really isn’t a viable option. So then the question is what do we do, right?” Dorn said.

Most pouches end up in landfills these days, thanks in part to their multi-layer structure that makes recycling difficult. There are some single-resin pouches in the market to address the recyclability issue, and TerraCycle is famous for its work with Capri Sun to collect and recycle kids’ drink pouches to an extent.

“The landfilling option, I mean it’s not like pouches are horrible in landfills necessarily. But nobody accepts that option if you are not trying to find a solution,” Dorn said. “If the industry does not tackle, is not seen, is not regarded as attempting to find solutions, you are only as good as the bad guys, like you don’t care.

“Even though you do all this wonderful stuff to produce a package that uses less resources, saves the product better, generates even less waste, the consumer does not get that if you are not working on the end-of-life side of things,” Dorn said.

With a growing sentiment against plastic bags in some areas of the country, pouches also risk being lumped in that broader category.

“The consumer doesn’t generally differentiate in their minds a pouch from a plastic bag. The consumer is starting to see plastic bags as evil. And pouches get thrown right in there with them. They don’t understand all of the environmental benefits of pouches. They just see it as another form of a bag,” Dorn said.

But, the pair said, there is hope in the form of a concept called extended producer responsibility, or EPR.

That’s where a manufacturer or retailer takes responsibility for the disposal or recycling of its product — in this case pouches — at the end of its useful life. A common approach is for a manufacturer to pay a certain amount per item produced to help fund that work.

EPR has been widely adopted in countries around the world, and even has been adopted to some extent here in the United States.

“You win in EPR,” Bell said, in comparison to other packaging. “No industry wins better than the flexible pouch.”

That’s because of the lower EPR fees compared with other packaging in general and glass in particular, Bell said.

“Pouches have a real definite advantage,” he said.

Several states around this country have created EPR laws covering products such as mercury-containing automotive switches, paint, mattresses, electronics and batteries, for example.

EPR, the consultants said, is a viable option to explore because there are hurdles surrounding other potential solutions.

And while Dorn and Bell spoke about EPR legislation regarding pouches, they wanted to be clear that they do not advocate for the passage of such legislation over other potential options when discussing ways to address end-of-life management for pouches.

Traditional recycling through material recovery facilities, or MRFs, will not work due to economics as well as current equipment technology.

Don't rely on curbside programs to step in

With the recycling markets in a slump, MRF operators are in no mood to accept new materials such as pouches when they are having trouble turning a profit with what they are already handling, Dorn said.

Plus pouches, lightweight and flat, tend to act like paper in MRF sorting equipment and will contaminate that recycling stream.

Plastic bag recyclers have achieved success through their take-back programs that allow consumers to return used shopping bags to retailers.

“This is a good option for some of the film plastics. But there are space limitations at retail outlets. They don’t want to be the dumping ground for all of the packaging that gets generated in the marketplace,” Dorn said. “Plus the trucks that they use to handle the recyclables that they collect at their retail outlets are generally the delivery trucks that bring products to their stores.

“They don’t want residue. They don’t want any kind of material that could contaminate their product or create other issues. They don’t want leaking materials,” Dorn said.

Incinerators do provide a viable option to recapture pouches. But with only 84 such sites in 23 states, there are not enough locations to handle all of the pouches that are created, she said.

The use of pouches to create engineered fuels, used in places such as cement kilns, do provide what Dorn called “the best option right now” when it comes to waste-to-energy.

And pyrolysis has promise, but is not commercially viable in this country right now. “This is an area where I think there is a lot of opportunity for development,” Dorn said. “But it’s going to require investment.”

Dorn said she has spoken at the Global Pouch Forum in the past and she now senses the industry is becoming more willing to addressing the disposal issue. “There’s more receptivity now among you that this issue be tackled,” she said.

“Societally, we’re recognizing that we need to have more of a circular materials economy approach,” Dorn said.