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Secret Shopper: Are pouches recyclable?

While snack pouches are usually not made out of recycled materials, certain components could be recycled.
While snack pouches are usually not made out of recycled materials, certain components could be recycled.

New products hit store shelves every day. The brand owners have made a decision to package these products in flexible pouches, often driven by consumer and/ or retailer preferences, and even by factors impacting pricing e.g transportation.

Below is a recent interview which appeared in the National Food Merchandiser (‘NFM’):

‘Secret Shopper: My kids love pouched products for snacks and in their lunch boxes. But are the pouches recyclable?

Store: That’s the sticking point with pouches: They’re not recyclable. It’s really a bummer because they’re so handy, but as far as I know, it just isn’t possible. But I’m pretty sure the plastic caps are recyclable.

NFM: So pouches are actually less eco-friendly than other packaging?

Store: Well, they do have some advantages. They’re smaller, so manufacturers can pack more pouches into an order, and that saves gas.

How did this retailer do?

Our expert educator: Tom Wright, Founder of Sustainable Bizness Practices

“The retailer is correct in that pouches are not recycled—but that doesn’t mean they’re not recyclable. Pouches are laminates, which means multiple materials layered together. Any time a package is made of more than a single material, it’s very hard to recycle. There needs to be a specific infrastructure in place to be able to recover them. There is no such infrastructure for pouches, and nobody is stepping up to create one, so they go in the trash.

She’s also right in saying that the caps can be recycled, especially if they are made of a No. 1 or No. 2 plastic. But the problem is the caps are so small that they get lost in the sorting line and may not actually get recycled.

As to whether pouches are eco-friendly, it depends on how you look at it. She’s right: Pouches are smaller and lighter than other containers so more can be shipped at once. But that usually means they’re being shipped a very long distance. Is it any better to have just two plants in the U.S. shipping pouched baby food all over the country than to have 50 plants that package baby food in glass jars and don’t have to ship them as far? The other problem with pouches is they’re so lightweight that, like plastic bags, they float easily and blow away in the wind, causing more of a mess.”She’s also right in saying that the caps can be recycled, especially if they are made of a No. 1 or No. 2 plastic. But the problem is the caps are so small that they get lost in the sorting line and may not actually get recycled.’

Many consumers incorrectly assume that the pouches are recyclable. Freedonia published a report entitled ‘Pouches’ in 2014, in which it was stated that stand up pouches accounted for 14.7% of total pouch demand in 2003. But will increase to 27.2% by 2023. Ester Palevsky, an analyst at Freedonia told FoodProductionDaily.com that stand pouches will remain a major growth area in the packaging industry with demanded expected to increase on average by 6.5% annually.

Terracycle is one of the few organizations which is working with brand owners to collect these pouches and upcycle into new products. Unfortunately, at present levels, Terracycle’s efforts are only touching the tip of the iceberg. That being said, some brand owners are collecting these pouches directly and upcycling the pouches.

Still, too many end up in landfill. So, the next time you are about to pick up a product in a pouch, think about the impact the packaging makes.