Packaging Sector in COVID-19: The Enhanced Significance of Shelf Life and Hygiene

What started 10 years ago as industry-driven material reduction programs have evolved into global initiatives to save and replenish the earth’s natural resources. This is a message I have delivered at conferences and presentations internationally over the last 10 years. Little did I think it would be reinforced and amplified to such a scale globally in the pandemic world of spring 2020.

COVID-19 has led to the whole world focusing on how we can play our part in combating the most virulent of viruses. Consumers have undoubtedly recognized now, if not before, the role packaging can play in health and hygiene and ultimately saving lives.

Food Packaging Status: UK and Europe

In food packaging, items such as plastic cutlery, single-use cups, plates, bowls and straws, produced and packed in hygienic and safe conditions, are in huge demand in healthcare settings. Acknowledging this, the UK government said on 16 April that the ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds in England would be delayed by six months as a result of the pandemic.

In late April 2020, following a series of discussions, the UK government confirmed a delay to its current plastics tax consultation from 20 May to 20 August, allowing stakeholders more time to submit their views. A sensible move at a time when environmental managers could be furloughed and capacity redirected to producing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The UK Food Service Packaging Association has called for hygiene and public safety to be considered in future packaging-related legislation. Another sensible move and one which I applaud.

In Europe, concerns that the EU’s ambitious sustainability targets will not be met have grown. In mid-April, the EU said that short-term reactions to the crisis could mean that the EU becomes locked into a fossil fuel economy for many years to come. Time will tell how this scenario develops but certainly some delays are inevitable. It is also reported that recycling of materials has been hit and this will take time to recover from when we return to the “new normal.”

Global Packaging Market

Globally, there are some other facts to consider. Wood Mackenzie, the global energy and chemicals research and consultancy firm, said in March that in China, the increased use of flexible packaging for fresh and processed meats and seafoods could help in reducing the risk of future virus outbreaks. This could be done by improving sterilization, tracing and recall and, crucially, extending shelf life.

While Chinese use of flexible packaging for fresh and processed meat and seafood is currently low, Wood Mackenzie concluded that a move in production to larger corporations, with more packaging used in distribution, could make a positive difference. The redesigning of wet markets and the distribution of fresh meat and produce is the ultimate goal. Having been to Wuhan and seen these types of markets, I totally support this view. Of course, whether the Chinese themselves are prepared to make the change is a moot point. Only time will tell in this respect.

In the US, the Plastics Industry Association said, in late March, that the use of single-use plastics could be the difference between life and death in health care settings. Items such as IV bags and ventilator machines have components made of single-use plastics, the Association rightly observed. Crucially for the food packaging sector, the Association made very clear that plastics played a key role in keeping food fresh, reducing contamination and waste. Single-use plastic bags provided a sanitary and convenient way to carry groceries home they argued, better than reusable bags. This is an issue worth debating once the crisis is over.

Food Waste Solutions

Consumers initially rushed to stockpile essentials during the COVID-19 lockdown. This resulted in a significant increase in the amount of fresh food thrown away, as consumers over-bought. Bread was one of the items going to waste according to We Seal, a UK based tape sealing expert.

WRAP, the waste charity, previously estimated that in the UK alone food waste had a value of £19 billion (US$23.4 billion) per year and was associated with more than 25 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. However, as of the end of April/early May, consumers are now making greater efforts to reduce the amount of waste they are generating. As a result, food waste has fallen by a third during the UK lockdown period, according to WRAP, as consumers are planning their purchases better.

I can offer some further hope for our troubled world on the environmental front. On 4 April, Loop, the zero-waste, refillable packaging delivery service that includes pantry items, announced it was expanding nationally in the US in summer 2020. TerraCycle, which runs the service, said would soon be bringing Loop to the UK, Germany, Canada, Japan and Australia.

TerraCycle customers place orders online and receive them in a reusable Loop tote with all of the products coming in refillable packaging. While supermarket delivery services provide relief from possible contact with COVID-19 via packaging, and from being in the vicinity of potentially contagious shoppers in-store, Loop is the only service to offer zero-waste packaging. A positive note for the future.

Neil Farmer, Founder/Owner of Neil Farmer Associates

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