NS Packaging speaks to Flexible Packaging Association boss Alison Keane about how the industry is coping with the Covid-19 pandemic
Since being established in 1951, the Flexible Packaging Association has seen its industry worth grow from $400m in the early 1950s to $31bn.
The trade group includes small, medium and large converters and suppliers, representative of 70% of the “value-added” flexible packaging industry, and is the leading advocate and voice for the US flexible packaging industry.
Its aims include promoting and protecting the benefits, contributions and advantages of the sector, and to research, collect, analyse and provide easy access to industry data and market information.
It also looks to provide representation and advocacy for the flexible packaging industry before government, retail, customer and consumer stakeholders.
Alongside this, it provides educational and networking opportunities for industry leaders.
NS Packaging speaks to the organisation’s president and CEO, Alison Keane, about how the industry is coping with the Covid-19 pandemic and is looking to tackle sustainability.
Flexible Packaging Association boss on her career history
“I started my career at the Maryland State Senate doing policy work, and from there I went to the Environmental Protection Agency, also working on policy.
“Then I jumped ship to the private sector and worked for 17 years for the paint coatings industry, working with the likes of Dulux – and I worked on policy and government.
“And about four years ago, an opportunity to head up the Flexible Packaging Association presented itself, I had gone as far as I could within the paint coatings industry, my boss wasn’t leaving anytime soon, so I was looking to forward my career.
“The person who ran the Flexible Packaging Association before me was going to retire, and it was a good time to become its president and CEO.
“And I really like it because, when compared to my old one, it’s a very small association, so I get to be president and CEO but do what I’m passionate about – government affairs.
“When they hired me, I told them that they have about five years before they’re really going to start to feel the effects of anti-plastics and anti-packaging – I was wrong, it was about three years instead.
“But we’re definitely dealing with that now, and it’s an exciting opportunity for us to steer the course, ensure our packaging continues to be at the forefront of all its good sustainability benefits, fix that end-of-life segment and get it into the circular economy.”
How the flexible packaging sector is making itself more sustainable
“When I first joined, they wanted to see the status quo – they had a lot of good markets and segment growth.
“They certainly wanted to continue to see growth, and expand past food into some of the other segments that are a little smaller.
“But I really knew what was coming down the pike, so I pushed them to think more holistically about where they sit in the supply chain, and help their consumer product companies particularly get to their sustainability goals.
“And I kept saying ‘we’ll continue to grow, but we need to get the word out about the sustainability benefits, we need to help the consumer product companies get their recyclability and circular economy’.
“This is because we need to be part of the solution, instead of just manufacturing packaging when asked.”
How the US flexible packaging industry is coping with the Covid-19 pandemic
“We had to work really hard at the beginning of March and April to ensure they were deemed critical infrastructure.
“But that was at the federal level, then we had to work state by state and even in some cases local government by local government as places like New York City, San Francisco, Seattle were all doing something a little different because they were so hard hit.
“So we had to ensure that if folks doing business there were deemed critical infrastructure they could then go to work safely.
“That took a good month or two of our lives, and once we got that in place it became a little more clear that we had to work on more nuanced issues.
“But I’m very fortunate to work for an industry that was able to step up and provide a lot of the packaging for food, health and hygiene that we needed.
“A lot of folks switched assets over so they’re working on PPE, face shields, packaging for masks and hand sanitiser.
“But there were some segments of the industry if you’re in institutional food – big cafeterias, schools and hospitals – the growth just died.
“However, if you’re in e-commerce packaging, food, health and hygiene, that skyrocketed – so it pretty much balanced out, and I think we’re still a very industry right now, despite or maybe even because of Covid-19.”
What does the future of the flexibles market look like
“From a flexible packaging standpoint, we’ve had a Covid-19 pause on some sustainability legislation because the federal government really started to work on stimulus packages in response and recovery.
“However it’s very telling that in June when the Federal Senate returned, the first hearing they had was on recycling infrastructure in the US so it’s not going away, and it shouldn’t because we do need to fix it so I think we’ll continue on that path.
“My hope is through some partnerships that we’ve forged and are involved in, we come up with a proactive approach that industry can support.
“So we have a bill or pieces of that work for us from a sustainability standpoint, this is what we want to see, this is where we want it to go for infrastructure for advanced recycling, not just for disposal or to reimburse the status quo, we need to go beyond it.
“The recycling partnership is actually drafting some language and we’re part of the National Recycling Council, which is drafting up some key concepts and language.
“Amerpen is looking specifically at different financing options per packaging and resin fees, recycle content mandates, and market drivers for infrastructure.
“Over the last couple of years, we were seeing these bad pieces of legislation we didn’t like, and these have really galvanised us to say we need to come up with a solution.
“From a flexible standpoint, we’ve had a dialogue with the Product Stewardship Institute, which represents all the state and local solid waste management officials.
“I want an acknowledgment of the sustainability benefits of flexibles today, let’s not say we just need to ban them because they’re not recyclable at the end of life, because that’s only one portion.
“However, we also need to work towards improving flexible recycling and into the circular economy.
“So that’s really the work we’re trying to do now, and how do you ensure that the public policy drives those correct end games instead of driving a ban on something that’s actually very sustainable from a lifecycle analysis standpoint.”