2025 is fast approaching, and so are the sustainable packaging goals for major retailers like Walmart and Target. And while many CPG brands have already begun the gradual, SKU-by-SKU transition to recyclable, compostable, or responsibly sourced packaging, many haven’t.
With some sustainable packaging development projects taking north of 12 months, now is the time to turn your brand’s sustainability goals into action if you haven’t already. While many projects can be completed much faster, the sooner you get started, the better.
But where to begin?
Well, we typically recommend starting with an honest conversation about your brand’s goals:
- Do you have an internal sustainability plan that you’ve communicated to investors? What sustainability benefit (recyclability, compostability, responsible sourcing) does it emphasize?
- What sustainability benefit best fits in with how consumers use your product? What does your target demographic expect from a “sustainable” package?
- What story do you want to tell about your brand’s commitment to preserving our planet?
If your brand has yet to have this conversation, an experienced flexible packaging converter can walk you through it. Carry your half of that discussion by asking them these hard-hitting sustainable packaging questions.
This article will map out your path to sustainable packaging commercialization if you’ve:
- Already discussed and defined your brand’s goals
- Chosen to transition one of your products to a recyclable pouch
Let’s dive in.
Your choice is clear: Mono-material PE pouches
If you’re transitioning a product to recyclable flexible packaging, your choice is clear:
Mono-material polyethylene (PE) pouches or bags.
PE is really the only flexible packaging material type that is compatible with Store Drop-Off recycling programs and is ready to be produced and distributed at scale.
There are thousands of permutations of all-PE packaging films
Just because there’s one material type doesn’t mean you’re limited in terms of performance attributes. By manipulating the gauge, orientation, additive mix, and coatings, you can achieve almost any performance attribute possible with multi-material film laminations.
Gauge — You can increase the barrier and puncture resistance of your all-PE pouch by increasing the gauge, or thickness, of the film. You can also laminate (extrusion or solventless adhesive) several PE films together without impacting the recyclability of your package.
Coating — You can add a metalized coating to your package to enhance the barrier and appearance of your pouch.
Orientation — Orienting PE film, or stretching it in multiple directions, improves its heat resistance, stiffness and clarity.
Film orientors are expensive pieces of equipment, and it used to be that only overseas film suppliers had invested in them. In the last 18 months, our stateside suppliers have made the investment, leading to greater product development innovation geared at recyclability in North America.
PE film technology is improving at an ever-increasing rate and will only improve with time.
Add recloseable features to your recyclable stand-up pouch
Apart from laser scoring, there really aren’t any functional features that you can’t incorporate in your all-PE pouch or rollstock: Windows, zippers, sliders, spouts, peel-and-reseal labels.
And innovations seem to roll in every year.
Last year, we were working with our zipper supplier to modify the chemical makeup of their zippers, so they crush (or apply) with reduced heat and pressure. Because PE isn’t as heat resistant as non-recyclable films like polyester, it runs the risk of deforming when applying the heat necessary to crush the zipper.
Now PE-compatible zippers are a commercial reality, and we played a key role in making that happen. We’re continually working with key suppliers to identify areas for performance improvement surrounding our sustainable packaging products.
Anything is possible. But the limiting factor is your (or your co-packer’s) filling lines.
There is one challenge to all-PE packaging films, and it’s that it lacks the heat resistance of other materials. And, because heat is required to seal and form your pouches, this has very real consequences.
Other packaging materials have a wider operating window in terms of heat and dwell time. They can be run very fast, with relatively wide variability in the amount of heat applied — meaning it can be run successfully on any number of filling lines. This is especially important for large CPGs with a diverse mix of plants and co-packer partners where they form their packaging. They need films that can be run on almost any form/fill/seal lines without issue.
All-PE packaging films, on the other hand, have a very tight operating window. They need just the right amount of heat, and just the right amount of dwell time. Excess heat will deform the package or negatively impact its stiffness.
The moral of the story: You can achieve any aesthetic or functional vision with a recyclable pouch. The only limiting factor is your filling line.
We’ll need to work in tandem with you (or your co-packer) to determine whether equipment adjustments can help you overcome heat-related challenges, and what the optimal equipment settings are.
Comparing commercialization for recyclable pouches vs. bags
There are two formats in which we can deliver all-PE flexible packaging: Fully formed pouches or rollstock.
The difference lies in who makes the finished package:
- Pouches — We form the pouches for you on our equipment, and the finished packages are delivered to your facility. All that’s left is filling them with your product.
- Rollstock — You or your co-packer will run the rolls of packaging material on your equipment to form, fill, and seal the finished bags.
Pouches are plug-and-play
We have dialed in all equipment settings (heat, dwell time, throughput speed) necessary to form all-PE pouches. When your finished pouches arrive at your facility, they’ve been custom-engineered to meet your performance and aesthetic expectations.
Rollstock requires more upfront testing
You want a commercially viable packaging product that can be produced at scale and without issue. This takes more work to achieve when run on your equipment — especially for CPGs with dozens of plants and several co-packers as in-line testing is required to ensure success.
The more lines that your packaging must run on, the more upfront work will be required to prevent packaging-line problems.
The important role of technical support on your filling lines
If you’re looking to source all-PE rollstock, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of commercialization is your packaging line (or lines, in the case of many CPGs).
We help CPGs and co-packers overcome challenges by providing technical support in the field before, during, and after their sustainable packaging development projects.
Our field tech engineers will visit your facility:
- At the outset of the project — To observe how your lines are running today. If we understand the current operating conditions, we can design a package with the performance attributes required to run better on your packaging line.
- To monitor tests — Once we engineer a recyclable package for you, we’ll send a field tech engineer to observe initial tests. This allows us to give accurate, in-depth feedback on the test, and make real-time packaging line adjustments to ensure the rollstock runs smoothly on your packaging line.
- As quality issues occur — Long after your first order, our field tech engineers remain on standby to fix any quality issues as they occur. To see what the troubleshooting process looks like, check out this article.
We won’t send a field tech engineer if a CPG declines our offer. Otherwise, we aim to provide the support free of charge.
After all, we take single-source responsibility for the success of your packaging initiative. And by providing technical support, we can stack the cards in your favor.
Making the distinction between “recyclable” and “recycle-ready”
There are many underlying motivations to transition to recyclable packaging: Being good stewards of the environment, meeting sustainability deadlines for key retailers, delivering on promises to investors.
And, of course, making a marketing claim about the recyclability of your package is another leading motivation.
Whether on your package or in an advertisement, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has very specific rules about when you can — and can’t — make claims of packaging recyclability, as well as how you should phrase those claims. These rules are concisely detailed in the FTC Green Guides, which you can read here.
The most important rule of thumb?
You can’t make broad claims of recyclability about your package unless a “substantial majority” — defined as 60% — of consumers in your geographic footprint can easily access facilities that will recycle your product. It’s not just about the ability to recycle your product, it’s also about access to recycling infrastructure.
This is why the distinction between “recyclable” and “recycle-ready” is so important.
All our packaging is “recycle-ready;” our packaging is carefully engineered to be recycled through the Store Drop-Off program. Whether or not you can claim that your package is “recyclable” ultimately comes down to the prevalence of recycling infrastructure where you sell your product.
To qualify for an on-package Store Drop-Off label, your brand will need to join How2Recycle and submit your pouch or bag for a recyclability assessment. We’ll assist you through this process in whatever way you need.
Choose a SKU and get started
2025 is coming whether your brand is prepared or not. And while it can be a long, uphill climb to commercialize recyclable packaging (or compostable or responsibly sourced, for that matter), taking the first step will ensure you’re ready when retailers stop accepting non-sustainable packages.
Start small. Maybe just one SKU. Proving it’s possible to run sustainable packaging for your products, in your plant, is the hard part — from there, it’ll be a lot easier to make the leap for the rest of your product families.
Ready to make the switch?
It won’t be easy, which means it’s all the more important to choose the right packaging partner. Reach out to our team today to have an open, honest conversation about whether we’re a fit for your next sustainable packaging project.