Resource Efficiency - Prevention

Increasing resource efficiency is a key part of the European Union (EU) strategy for a smart, inclusive and sustainable economy.


Resource Efficiency - Prevention

The Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe outlines how we can transform Europe's economy into a sustainable one by 2050. The areas of focus where appropriate actions can make a real difference are nutrition, housing and mobility, the sectors responsible for most environmental impacts from a life cycle and value-chain perspective. Reducing the amount of waste generated at source – also called Prevention – is an important lever for increasing resource efficiency. Prevention is indeed regarded as the highest priority according to the Waste Hierarchy established in the EU Waste Framework Directive. The following areas demonstrate how flexible packaging plays a key role in supporting prevention and resource efficiency at the European level.

How Resource Efficient is Flexible Packaging?

IFEU, an independent research organisation, was asked to study two scenarios on primary packaging used in Europe for Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) excluding beverages: 1) what if all rigid packaging were substituted by flexible packaging and 2) what if all rigid packaging were replaced by flexible packaging. The results of this study updated in 2019 show that in the first scenario – substituting rigid by flexible – the total weight of primary packaging used for non-beverage FMCGs in Europe could be reduced by 21 million tonnes per year ( a 70% reduction) and its Global Warming Potential (GWP) could be reduced by 33%.

The opposite scenario – substituting flexible by rigid – would increase the total GWP of the primary packaging used for non-beverage FMCGs in Europe by about 31%. This is despite the much higher actual recycling rates of rigid packaging. Even if the recycling rate of rigid packaging was raised to 100%, this would still lead to 14% higher GWP. In addition to GWP, the environmental impacts of Abiotic Depletion, which refers to the use of non-renewable resources, and Use of Water were also assessed, showing similar results in the same order of magnitude.

The study concludes that for packaging the focus should not be on recyclability only but also and foremost on prevention. This can be achieved by a higher use of flexible packaging, which would lead not only to less primary packaging waste, but also to lower carbon footprint and use of resources. Conversely, a focus only on recyclability and achieving recycling targets, which might encourage the substitution of flexible packaging solutions by more easily recyclable rigid packaging, would clearly be detrimental for climate change and resource efficiency. To verify both the approach and the magnitude of these results, a 3rd party LCA agency, Carbotech AG, was asked to review them. Carbotech confirmed the IFEU findings conclusions. Please click here to see more details about the 2019 IFEU study Please click here to see the press release and infographics issued about this study

Resource efficient packaging: what does it mean?

Another study still performed by IFEU in 2016 has produced a definition for resource efficient packaging and also a method for assessing the resource efficiency of packaging, using a case study involving flexible packaging.

In the study, a resource efficient package is defined as a packaging solution which is combining the minimized use of material and energy throughout its lifecycle with the minimized amount of material losses (meaning not recycled).

To assist this definition, a three-metric model was proposed to assess the resource efficiency of packaging:

  • Designing flexible packaging for full effectiveness and minimum environmental footprint
  • Circularity for flexible packaging
  • Zero tolerance of leakage and littering into the environment
  • Speeding up progress with cooperation.

As an example, the study is applying the model to a laminated flexible pouch packaging solution for 460ml long-life pasta sauce. This is compared to three alternative, non-flexible packaging systems: a glass jar, a tin can and a plastic pot. The results reveal that the foil pouch solution (taking into account the complete packaging system including also secondary and tertiary packaging) was more resource efficient in all three metrics than the alternative solutions.

For the model it was assumed the pouch had a zero recycling rate as a worst-case scenario. Indeed, recycling solutions for flexible packaging already exist and will be further developed. This would lead to even more resource efficiency.

Please click here to see more details about the 2016 IFEU study.