Covid-19: Has the packaging industry forgotten about sustainability?

Jessica Paige 12 May 2020 (Last Updated May 15th, 2020 13:02)

During this pandemic, has sustainability taken a backseat to stop the virus spreading and save lives? Packaging Gateway looks into some debates surrounding sustainability that have arisen.

Covid-19: Has the packaging industry forgotten about sustainability?
While sustainability seems to have taken a backseat, businesses are still working on methods to become more sustainable.

According to a Global Data report released in January, sustainability was set to be the biggest trend of 2020. The beginning of the year saw packaging news dominated by stories related to helping the environment and becoming as sustainable as possible.

In the packaging industry, many companies were switching to eco-friendly alternatives and coming up with innovative technology to help the environment. Plastic waste became a hot topic, and debates arose over the issues it raised. Edible or biodegradable packaging was widely discussed as alternatives.

However, as the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic, coverage began shifting away from sustainability and towards the virus and its impact on the world. Since March, countries across the globe have implemented lockdowns and social distancing rules to attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

During this pandemic, has sustainability taken a backseat to stop the virus spreading and save lives? Packaging Gateway looks into some debates surrounding sustainability that have arisen.

Single-use plastic “important” for health and safety

The question over how Covid-19 is transmitted is one that has caused a lot of debate over packaging. Some studies have suggested that the virus can be passed on through cardboard and plastic, while others, like the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), have disputed this fact.

Because of this concern, supermarkets have seen an increase in the use of single-use materials to wrap products, like cling film for fruit and vegetables. In March, experts from the packaging industry weighed in on a debate over whether plastic workers should be classified as essential or not and many believed that they should be essential to ensure safety during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Subsequently, in April, Packaging Gateway asked industry specialists whether the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has put a hold on the ‘war on plastic’. A consensus from the expert opinions concluded that many businesses would still be pursuing plastic reduction strategies. Some also stated that anti-plastic movements would be put on hold as a result of being in lockdown.

Are companies using Covid-19 as an excuse?

Though many in the industry have argued for plastic to be reevaluated, some think businesses are using the pandemic as an excuse to push back against plastic bans, such as the plastic straw ban which was originally going to come into effect in April but was delayed to October. In US states New York and New Jersey among others, the plastic industry has been calling for delays on single-use plastic bag bans, claiming that reusable bags are risking lives.

The pandemic has also seen a rise in plastic waste. According to Forbes, a lot of personal protective equipment (PPE) used by the public is being discarded carelessly and the pushback against single-use plastic bans has heightened demand for bottled water, plastic bags, disposable wipes and sanitisers. Medical waste company Stericycle has also claimed that there has been an increase in PPE waste in the US. 

Consumers concerned over the environment

A survey conducted by research firm FMCG Gurus found that 40% of global consumers now have more positive perceptions of packaging due to the virus and that 55% are “more concerned” about the environment than before the pandemic. The survey results also revealed that 47% of consumers said they are willing to pay more for an eco-friendly product.

While sustainability seems to have taken a backseat, businesses are still working on methods to become more sustainable. This week alone, Lifestyle Packaging launched a formula to improve packaging biodegradability, Nova Chemicals and Enerkem partnered to find new ways to recycle plastic waste, and ECOS launched a Mother & Child Refill Kit, promoting sustainability.

Sustainability may not be being talked about as much as before the pandemic, but efforts are always ongoing to help the environment.