2020/08/14 Packaging and COVID-19: How has it impacted the industry? (part 2 of 2)

Packaging and COVID-19: How has it impacted the industry?

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Long-term implications

So much for the short-term changes wrought by the crisis; what kind of long-term fallout can we expect? Perhaps most tellingly for the industry, there have been suggestions that the increased recognition of the protective role packaging plays may go some way to easing off the plastics backlash – and it’s easy to understand why this may be, given the hygiene benefits of this material. But we must not forget that there are environmental implications here, too. After all, the climate crisis has not been put on hold as we turn our attention to coronavirus.
“Until a few weeks ago anyone hearing the words ‘plastic packaging’ often thought of waste first,” says Mara Hancker of IK Industrievereinigung Kunststoffverpackungen, the German association for plastics packaging and films. “Plastic packaging had to be combatted, and anyone who used it should be ashamed of themselves. ‎Virtually no one wanted to hear about the ecological benefits, facts were frighteningly irrelevant to many discussions and the populist ‘plastic-free’ demand drowned out many factual arguments.

“Then came the coronavirus and triggered worldwide changes in almost all areas of life. In exceptional situations like the current one, perspectives, perceptions and attitudes change. And this also applies to the way we handle packaging. By way of example, multi-use is not always better than single-use and we can be glad that we have the choice. PET bottles have an excellent carbon footprint and are an important mainstay of supply, especially in the face of increased demand.”

In fact, EuPc recently sent an open letter to the EU Commission advocating for the postponement of the Single-Use Plastic Directive. Does Mara think such a move would be justified in these circumstances, or is this beside the point?

“Hygiene and environmental protection are two legitimate concerns that should not be played off against each other. However, Corona changes the perception of packaging. Its function is perceived and appreciated again. In the SUP Directive many things are well thought out, but many things are not well done, because speed was more important than care and now individual regulations must follow. But that has nothing to do with Corona.”

It’s also possible – though regrettable – that this shift may impact reusable packaging models. “There has already been some resistance to the use of ‘bags for life’,” says Justin Kempson, “as there is opportunity for the virus to be present on these and for it to be passed on through touching these bags (as well as cash) so I believe that this may impact on ‘refill’ containers that consumers take into store.”

There is also the question of the location of production itself: according to Marisa Suter of US-based design agency MS Design, there may also be a growing move towards local production models rather than outsourcing further afield.

“Brand owners will be driven (or forced) to produce locally and stay competitive. The whole world has relied and grown to being used to cheap labour/printing from China to keep pricing low to maximize gains. This industry may become more regulated and be more transparent as a result of the coronavirus forcing them to do business somewhere else.”

Have we learned anything?

Finally, is there anything the industry can take from this terrible situation moving forward? There are of course no real ‘positives’, but for this industry at least we have seen an increased recognition that, without the right packaging, supply chains would entirely fail. In a similar vein, many key workers – delivery drivers, retail workers – are suddenly being valued in a way they perhaps weren’t previously. If this change lasts, it would be a welcome one.

Ultimately, this is such a fast-moving crisis that it would be impossible to say with any certainty what the biggest long-term impacts will be. Meanwhile the wider world is coming to terms with unimaginable loss, and it is too soon to start counting economic costs.