Sustainability In Packaging: How Flexible Outweighs Traditional Forms of Recyclable Packaging

June 15, 2022 | By The Fres-co Team

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With conscientious consumer purchasing and regulatory requirements on the rise, the call for brands to implement a viable sustainability strategy has never been more urgent. Consumers see themselves as agents of change, and as a result, they are thinking more critically about how and where they spend their dollars. This increasing pressure is pushing brands to make sustainability a central part of their value proposition.

Consumers are increasingly looking for packaging that is designed with a strong sustainability history. According to a survey by McKinsey & Company, 60 to 70 percent of U.S. consumers reported that they would be willing to pay more for a product with sustainable packaging.

Converting to more sustainable packaging, like our flexible options, can help your brand meet consumer expectations and legislative demand, while also helping to maintain a healthy bottom line. In this article, we dive into what sustainable packaging is, and how recyclable packaging and flexible packaging compare, so you can make an informed decision on what’s best for your brand.

What is the Difference Between Recyclable Packaging and Sustainable Packaging?

Going green isn’t always black and white. While sustainable packaging is often associated with materials that are recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable, there are other forms—including flexible plastics—that are also sustainable options when evaluating the entire lifecycle. Let’s break this down further.

Sustainable Packaging

In its broadest sense, sustainable packaging is packaging that, over time, reduces its environmental impact and ecological footprint. In other words, it must meet the functional and economic needs of the current packaging without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. 

Sustainable packaging can include packaging that is reusable, recyclable, biodegradable, compostable, or that uses fewer resources and contributes less to landfills. In order to make this determination, the entire lifecycle of the packaging must be accessed—and not just the packaging materials. For instance, while flexible packaging uses plastics, it also generates fewer emissions, creates less waste, and reduces shipping volume compared to other alternatives—all factors that greatly influence its sustainability over the lifecycle.

Recyclable Packaging

Recyclable packaging is any form of packaging that can be reused and recycled. The materials that make up recyclable packaging can be collected, sorted, reprocessed, and ultimately reused in manufacturing or through creating another item. Typical recyclable materials include paper, metal, glass, and corrugated cardboard.

Newer, advanced forms of recycling include chemical recycling, which uses heat, chemical reactions, or both, to break down used plastics like multi-layer laminated packaging into raw materials. The raw material is then used to create new plastic, fuel, or other chemicals, turning the “unrecyclable” into recycled items.


Recyclable Packaging: Pros and Cons

Paper, metal, glass, and cardboard have been widely used for product packaging for decades, but while they are more easily recyclable, it doesn’t entirely get brands out of the woods when it comes to meeting sustainability goals. Below are the pros and cons.

Pros of Recyclable Packaging

  • High Recycling Rate: Paper, metal, and glass all have a high recycling rate. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, paper has an overall recycling rate of 43%, with corrugated cardboard being as high as 97%. Additionally, it was reported that 50% of aluminum beer and soft drink cans were recycled in 2018.
  • Potentially Reduces Landfill Waste: Glass, metal, and paper are all able to be easily recycled; therefore, these forms of packaging can actually reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators when recycled correctly.
  • Fewer Raw Materials Are Needed: Recycling is all about the reuse of already existing materials. As a result, less raw materials are needed, which helps to decrease pollution that is associated with the creation of new packaging.

Challenges of Recyclable Packaging

  • Low Durability: During transportation, it is not uncommon for aluminum cans to become dented, for glass bottles to break, or for paper and cardboard to tear or puncture in transit. This can compromise not only the affected units itself, but cause the carrier or distributor to abandon the entire freight due to contamination, resulting in unnecessary waste and requiring replacement product, using more energy and resources.
  • More Susceptible to Environmental Elements: Unless products specifically require refrigeration or freezing during transit, they are transported in trucks without any temperature control. Recyclable packaging such as paper leaves products more prone to dehydration, moisture ingress, and oxidation for long periods of time before reaching the retail market or consumer. If the product becomes spoiled, replacement product must be shipped, again using additional fuel, energy, and resources over the long term.
  • User Errors in Consumer Recycling: In order to be recycled properly, consumers must be stringent in how they sort materials for collection. This includes thoroughly rinsing out, cleaning, and drying recyclable products, separating non-recyclable parts, and ensuring that the items placed in recycling are actually able to be recycled. Unfortunately, failing to meet these requirements can contaminate the load, requiring additional manpower to manually sort through it, causing potential damage to equipment, or eventually ending up in landfills depending on the level of contamination. 
  • Heavier Shipping Weight and Lower Product-to-Package Ratio: Glass and metal packaging have a lower product-to-package ratio. This means that there is less product and more packaging material in each product, adding excess waste. As a result, products packaged in these materials consume more space and require more truckloads compared to a product in flexible packaging.


How Flexible Packaging Wins: Sustainability Across the Lifecycle

When it comes to basic properties, flexible packaging has a special advantage over other forms of sustainable packaging: it is extremely efficient. In fact, flexible packaging is so efficient that lifecycle assessment tools have shown that single-use flexibles usually result in less fossil fuel usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use—all due its very lightweight and compact size—even when compared to recyclable options like glass and metal.

Flexible packaging provides the following sustainable advantages when assessed over the full lifecycle:

1. Higher Product-to-Package Ratio
The product-to-package ratio is a measure that compares the volume of a product itself versus the volume of the product’s packaging. A high ratio indicates that there is more product compared to its packaging material, which in turn, means that there is less waste and resources used in the product’s final form. 

Flexible packaging conforms to the product inside of it, enabling brands to maximize the use of the interior cubic space. According to the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), a single-serve liquid pouch offers a 97:3 product-to-package ratio. When packaged in a glass bottle, its ratio is typically significantly lower and less efficient.

2. Less Fuel Used for Shipping and Transportation
Any packaged goods placed in the market must be transported and then distributed, whether through commercial retail or through a direct-to-consumer model. Unlike rigid packaging, flexible materials are usually shipped flat or on a roll, allowing for a greater number of packages to be shipped in a single truckload for inbound transportation. 

By maximizing truckloads, less transportation-related energy and fossil fuels is used, causing less environmental pollution. All of these benefits are a direct result of its lighter weight, high product-to-package ratio, and improved palletization. A study reported by Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) found that one truckload of unfilled flexible pouches could carry the same amount of product as 26 truckloads of unfilled glass jars. For liquids, our Fres Flow™ bag-in-box solution is not only less expensive to manufacture and ship compared to glass bottles, but also results in a lower carbon footprint. It also produces less waste by providing a longer shelf life, due to the elimination of oxygen ingress through traditional BIB fitments.

3. Increased Product Protection
While glass and metal cans are recyclable, they are prone to breaking and denting during transportation, inevitably leading to the loss of not only that particular unit of product, but potentially the entire freight. Damaged packaging can not only lead to product loss and waste, but it can cause logistical challenges to reship replacement products and financial losses.  

By design, flexible shipping is non-breakable and better absorbs impact during transportation. Over time, fewer product losses during transportation will not only lead to fewer unnecessary expenses, but it also uses less transportation-related energy and fossil fuels, causing less environmental pollution.

4. Source Reduction
One of the most effective waste management approaches is simply reducing the creation of waste at the source, known as source reduction. Due to its lightweight design and use of fewer materials compared to rigid packaging, flexible packaging accomplishes this. Source reduction is the top component of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Waste Hierarchy and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, saves natural resources, conserves energy, reduces pollution, and reduces the toxicity of our collective waste.  

Compared to glass beverage bottles, our Fres-co Barrel Pouch produces 7 times less greenhouse gases and uses 5 times less total energy to create, based on 100,000lb of product packaged. It also offers a wide variety of customization and design options to suit your needs.

5. Extended Shelf Life
In addition to providing increased product protection from breakage during transportation, flexible packaging also features an airtight seal and high-barrier film, which protects product from elements such as sunlight, temperature, and moisture. These features help prevent dehydration, moisture ingress, and oxidation that causes product spoilage, which not only extends shelf life, but helps to minimize the volume of product being thrown away. 

Our flexible alternative the #10 can, the high-barrier #10 pouch, offers the same shelf life as the #10 can, but saves up to 75% of the costs of material, provides up to 87% source reduction, and uses up to 50% less materials.


Embrace A Sustainable Approach with Flexible Packaging

Flexible packaging offers significant value and sustainability benefits to product manufacturers and brands, retailers, and consumers. If you’re considering making the switch or want to learn more about how flexible packaging can support your sustainability mission, connect with our team of flexible packaging experts.

As a leader in flexible packaging, we can help you innovate for the future and embrace a more sustainable approach. Contact us to learn more about how we help.


For more than 40 years, Fres-co System USA, Inc. has manufactured high-performance flexible packaging systems and invented dozens of innovative breakthroughs including degassing valves, modified atmosphere technologies, and reclosure systems.

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