After disposable coffee cups and plastic bottles, pouches could be the next target in the waste reduction debate, due to the difficulty of recycling these packs.

Pouches have come into the spotlight recently as a result of confusion over the use of the Green Dot symbol on pouch packs. Although the Green Dot is a mark to show that the supplier has made a financial contribution towards recycling, many consumers believe it means that the products can be recycled in household recycling systems. In fact any pouches disposed of via this route end up being sent for incineration or landfill.

Growing awareness of this issue is likely to turn consumers off this form of packaging. This may be particularly the case in the baby food sector, where pouches have transformed the market over the last 10 years – in the UK they formed the largest segment at 43% in 2016, and in the US they accounted for 32% of baby meals sales. Parents of small children are more environmentally concerned than many consumers, and may reject packaging that has the potential to outlast their kids.

The case for pouches

However, pouches do have some environmental advantages over other apparently more sustainable pack types. They use fewer natural resources than many pack types, both in raw materials and in the production process, while their low weight means transportation produces lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, plastic pouches can in fact be recycled, and systems to do this do exist. One such example is the Hain Celestial subsidiary, Ella’s Kitchen, which has joined forces with specialist recycler TerraCycle to establish the EllaCycle system – pouches can be left with participating charities or individuals who can then send them to TerraCycle.

Action needed

Nonetheless, this system requires a degree of effort and organisation by consumers, which results in low recovery rates, and this in itself makes the recycling process more costly and less attractive to recyclers.

It will require a concerted effort from food and beverage manufacturers, packaging suppliers, recycling companies and local governments to pool their resources to make recycling of pouches easier, so that it becomes routine – just as the recycling of glass jars has become. Without this action, the future of the pouch format looks bleak.