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Flexible Packaging

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Introduction | Film & Flexible Plastic Packaging

Film and flexible plastic packaging (‘flexibles’) is the fastest-growing plastic packaging category. Due to their low weight, low cost and high functionality, flexibles are used for many products, such as fresh fruit, meat, dry food, confectionary, drinks and more. The construction may be plain, printed, coated, coextruded or laminated.

As noted by the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR), the vast majority of film is polyethylene and polypropylene, but currently only polyethylene is routinely collected and recycled as “PCR” (Post-Consumer-Recycled) in North America.

Life-cycle assessments, which take into account the full cycle of packaging, from material extraction to disposal, often show that flexibles are preferred, when compared with alternatives. However, flexibles are typically single-use, with very low recycling rates, and some flexible formats, such as food wrappers and plastic bags,  are high-frequency litter items.


A 2021 Recycling Partnership white paper provides these definitions:

Film: Plastic film is typically defined as any plastic less than 10 millimeters thick. The majority of plastic film is made from polyethylene (PE) resins, both low-density and high-density materials.

Examples include retail grocery bags, bread bags, produce bags , air pillows and case wrap. Polypropylene (PP) is also used for packaging in similar applications. These film categories are often referred to as “monolayer” film. 

Flexible packaging: In contrast to monolayer film, flexible packaging is often comprised of multiple materials or multiple layers of plastic film. The different properties in each layer contribute different performance characteristics to the package. The layers within a flexible package can be aluminum foil or paper in addition to plastic.

Examples include pouches, sleeves, sachets, and bags.

Sustainable Packaging Options, Actions & Use Cases

Five sustainable packaging options are available for flexible packaging – ranging from elimination thru to substitution. Select the Sustainable Packaging Option of interest below, which will help you subsequently identify the available sustainable packaging actions.

Related Resources and Studies

Studies and resources related to flexible packaging are provided for reference. Note that studies may be assigned to multiple categories if applicable. 

General Studies
  • A Roadmap to Strengthen the Management of Single-Use and Disposable Plastics 2022
    Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME)This Roadmap seeks to reduce the negative environmental and socio-economic impacts of single-use and disposable plastics by listing priority items to consider for elimination, including select film and flexible packaging used in food and produce sectors, and specific packaging forms such as woven and net produce bags.
  • Flexible packaging: The urgent actions needed to deliver circular economy solutions
    Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF)

    This work aims to support organisations in achieving their circular economy for plastics goals by providing a practical direction forward for flexible packaging.

  • Best Practice: Transitioning Flexible Materials 2023
    FPA, PMMI, and OpX Leadership Network

    This document acts as a guide in the process of transitioning flexible film in CPG operations – including the planning, testing and evaluating needed to ensure the new materials are compatable with existing equipment or if new equipment is required.  It strives to align sustainability goals while meeting product quality and shelf-life requirements.  

Recyclability of Flexible Packaging
  • Recycle Check: Flexible Plastic Packaging 2021
    Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging (KIDV)

    Includes a decision tree that helps to determine whether your plastic package is able to be properly sorted and recycled, and clarifies why that is (not) the case.

  • Pathways to Mono-Material Flexible Plastic Packaging April 2023

    Provides practical information and guidance on the design and manufacturing pathways that enable moving from multi-material flexible plastic packaging to more recyclable mono-material (PE & PP) flexible structures, when possible.

Design Guides
  • Design for Recycled Content Guide 2019
    Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC)The Guide provides information on the key considerations around recycled content and how to design packaging that incorporates recycled content in order to drive demand for recycled materials. The Guide shares insights from experienced users of recycled content across the packaging supply chain to illuminate the opportunities and best practices for using recycled content in packaging.
  • APR Design Guide
    Assocation of Plastic Recyclers (APR)The Guide helps package designers measure each aspect of a package design against industry-accepted criteria to ensure that it is truly recycling compatible
  • Packaging Design for Recycling: A Global Recommendation for Circular Packaging Design
    World Packaging Organization (WPO)

    This resource considers a holistic view of packaging as essential for sustainable pacakaging development – including delivering on a circular economy and the reduction in the sources of ecological impact on the environment. Design for recycling is part of circular product design and represents an important basis for holistic sustainable assessment.

  • Flexible Packaging: Substitution for Compostable Flexibles. Design and Circulation
    Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF)

    Identifies key actions businesses and policymakers can take to advance substitution to compostable flexibles.