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  • “Foil based flexible packaging…can have a far greater positive impact on the environment, even with zero recycling...” Stefan Glimm, Chief Executive Director (EAFA)
  • Interviewee
     “Foil based flexible packaging…can have a far greater positive impact on the environment, even with zero recycling...” Stefan Glimm, Chief Executive Director (EAFA)
    The European Aluminium Foil Association (EAFA) is an international body that represents companies engaged in the rolling and rewinding of alufoil and in the manufacture of aluminium closures, alufoil semi-rigid containers and of all kind of flexible packaging. In a mail conversation with AlCircle, Stefan Glimm, Chief Executive Director of the European Aluminium Foil Association, EAFA talks about the best approach to waste prevention and how foil based flexible packaging is leading the way.

    Excerpt from the interview

    AlCircle: You talk about ‘Debunking the recycling myth’. Can you explain what you mean?

    SG: Well, what it does not mean is reducing efforts and initiatives to recycle. EAFA continues to fully support all these activities. But with such a big focus on recycling people are forgetting about other ways to achieve resource efficient consumption like waste prevention.

    We need a more holistic approach to the issue of resource efficiency. All our studies suggest using foil based flexible packaging as an alternative to non-flexible packs can have a far greater positive impact on the environment, even with zero recycling of these materials.

    However, the general perception at consumer and other stakeholder level is that a pack, serving the same consumption purpose, with e.g. 80% recycling rate is better than a pack with zero recycling – which is not necessarily true.

    AlCircle: If you don’t recycle surely there is more waste?

    SG: No, on the contrary, with better packaging optimisation there could be less waste. Let me give you an example: At one end of the scale we can look at an individual package food product – a soup pack – and make a comparison with a foil-based flexible pouch with a material weight of 5g and a non-flexible pack with a material weight of 50g. If we assume an 80% recycle rate for the non-flexible pack, which is higher than the current rate in Europe, there is still a 10g material weight loss. And this is double to the material weight of the flexible pouch if not recycled at all.

    If we then look at this on a more global scale and take the extreme scenario of replace all non-flexible food packaging with flexible packaging independent of its recycling performance, you can see what the outcome could be.

    In fact, a recent study by well-known ifeu (Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung Heidelberg) investigated the waste prevention potential in Europe by replacing non-flexible food packaging with flexible packaging. The results demonstrate that, thanks to light-weighting and waste prevention benefits, flexible food packaging can save up to 26 million tonnes of primary packaging material or 77% - per year.

    This reduction has the effect of saving 42 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, and 276 million m³ of water use – and this in comparison to a best case scenario for non-flexible packaging with 100% recycling rate, and a worst case scenario for flexible packaging with zero recycling.

    AlCircle: But the EU sees recycling as a priority doesn’t it?

    SG: Yes, in the new draft Circular Package it does – contrary to the legally existing waste hierarchy where prevention scores clearly above recycling. It is becoming paradoxical: if flexible packaging due to a currently weak recycling performance would be replaced by non-flexible with best case scenario for non-flexible assuming 100% recycling, figures from the ifeu study show that the carbon footprint for primary food packaging in Europe would increase by 6% - just the opposite what politicians and legislators want to achieve. Plus, the amount of additional primary packaging on the market would increase by 23 million tonnes or 61%.

    If the overall political objective is to achieve a resource efficient Europe and to enhance sustainable consumption by making the best use of these resources, then focusing just on recycling ignores the considerable environmental benefits to be gained by recognising and crediting the potential to prevent waste by choosing a flexible packaging solution.

    AlCircle: You quote some big numbers. How are these achieved?

    SG: While carbonised beverages generally require rigid packaging like the aluminium beverage can every food product could be packed in flexible packaging. Therefore, we looked into food only. Today 40% of all food units are offered in flexible packs. What would it mean if 100% of food supply would be in flex? In Europe we would save 26 million tonnes of packaging material per year that equates to 1 million fewer truckloads; the greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 42 million tonnes which is almost 1% of the total GHG generated in one year by the EU28; and 276 million m³ of water would be saved equal to fill 110,000 Olympic swimming pools. Here we talk savings year by year…

    It should be noted that this is achieved by substituting non-flexible packs with all types of flexible materials, not just foil based ones, but you get the idea of just how much of a positive benefit the transition to flexible packaging would make. And foil would play a considerable part if more food would be packed in flex. And remember, this is based on a scenario without any recycling.

    AlCircle: Do foil based flexible packs add other benefits?

    SG: Aluminium foil, of course, brings its own, very particular characteristics to any flexible material. In particular, the barrier properties against light, gas and moisture are very important to the shelf life and quality retention of many food, pharmaceutical and confectionery products. Foil is a very good functional barrier, and longer shelf life also stands for less food waste. In view of one third of food produced globally being wasted rather than consumed today, aluminium foil’s barrier properties and possible contribution to tailor-made portion packs offer unique opportunities to reduce food waste. And one should never forget the pack has to reflect the quality of what’s inside and the finish foil-based flexible packaging can provide has just the right look and feel.

    AlCircle: Do you have examples of where a foil based flexible packaging has replaced a non-flexible alternative?

    SG: In EAFA our members are always innovating and many packs are coming to market in this category, illustrating that there are many ‘alternatives’ out there to non-flexible packaging.

    One great example is pet food, which was traditionally packaged in rigid steel packaging. Today we see not only aluminium semi-rigid containers but also aluminium-based flexible pouches. As well as saving on materials these pack formats offer additional advantages in terms of convenience – easy opening, portioning, product preservation, reduced waste volumes and almost always a lower environmental impact. And semi rigid containers today are recycled in Europe by more than 55% - increasing by trend.

    AlCircle: Replacing 100% of non-flexible packs with flexible is a very ambitious target. Is it achievable?

    SG: This is unlikely to happen any time soon. By developing the ‘extreme scenario’ our intention was to demonstrate that the focus should be on resource efficiency and the essential role waste prevention has to play in achieving this.

    Brand Owners should continue to have choice of packaging solutions to best suit their needs and the requirements of their packaged food products, and for different consumption situations at consumer level.

    What we are saying is that the current 40% of flexible packaging, compared with 60% for non-flexibles, can be greatly improved in favour of flexibles, which are proven, beyond doubt, to be more resource efficient – independent from flexibles recycling performance.

    AlCircle: Is there a danger that taking the focus off recycling could reduce efforts in that area?

    SG: Not at all. In fact, EAFA in cooperation with EA’s Packaging Group has supported and continues to support initiatives to increase the levels of alufoil recycling across Europe as well as widening the ‘net’ of products which can be collected. Tea lights are a good example of something used in millions and which are simple to recycle if the correct procedures are in place, such as the campaign launched by Alupro Ireland, IKEA and WEE in Dublin last year.

    EAFA supports the collection of all packaging waste to avoid the cherry picking of only the easy recyclables. So, even if flexible packaging is generally the most resource efficient solution, even with zero recycling, the flexible packaging industry is constantly seeking to increase the recycling and recovery rates for these materials by supporting the development of technologies to recycle multi-layer packaging. Our sister organisation Flexible Packaging Europe, FPE, is also taking a lead in this area.

    AlCircle: Finally, what is the most important message you would like people to understand?

    SG: Consumers have been told for the past 20 years that the recycling of packaging is the complete solution. This emphasis needs to change. The overall objective of society is to enable sustainable and resource efficient consumption. The tools to achieve this are prevention, recycling and recovery. It is like the aluminium industry argues on automotive: it is prevention of weight by light-weighting followed by recycling which makes aluminium the material of choice.

    Disclaimer: “The information presented herein is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional advice. The views and opinions shared in the interview section of www.alcircle.com are unique to the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of www.alcircle.com.”