Early in the pandemic, uncertainty about how the virus spread meant that sustainability took a back seat. Consumers were concerned that reusable packaging would increase the risk of transmission, and single-use plastic began to return to the mainstream, despite having been acknowledged as environmentally unfriendly and unsustainable.

While health concerns were being researched and addressed, sustainability took a backseat. The UK plastic straw ban was delayed from April to October and in the US, certain states delayed single-use plastic bag bans. Plastic waste began to rise, with personal protective equipment (PPE) being discarded carelessly and single-use plastic making a return to supermarkets.

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It seemed that sustainability was being forgotten, however, research indicates that sustainability is still a priority for consumers.

Increased demand for plastic packaging comes with demand for recyclability

Plastic recycling expert Vanden Recycling UK MD David Wilson told Packaging Gateway: “It seems clear that there has been a partial shift in public attitude to plastics during the pandemic. We’re seeing ongoing demand for plastic packaging and increased use in some areas.

“That, however, is also going hand-in-hand with an expectation for the ability to recycle that packaging and inclusion of recycled content. There’s been no reduction in demand for PET and HDPE for use in plastic bottles and other polymers are also in demand for other plastic packing applications.

“For the moment it seems that the public’s antipathy towards plastic as a packaging material has been set aside as they think about the safety and security of the goods they buy.”

UK-based packaging company Amcor conducted research last month that highlighted the need for better recyclability. The results of the company’s research showed that consumers want to be better educated on recycling practices and how to live more sustainably.

Concerns over the safety of reusable packaging subsiding

At the end of last month, scientists from various countries signed a statement urging consumers to return to reusable packaging, declaring it safe to use.

The open letter, Health Expert Statement Addressing Safety of Reusables and Covid-19, said: “Reuse and refill systems are an essential part of addressing the plastic pollution crisis and moving away from a fossil fuel-based economy. They can create jobs and help build local economies.

“The Covid-19 global pandemic has triggered a discussion of how to ensure the safety of reusable systems in a public health crisis. Based on the best available science and guidance from public health professionals, it is clear that reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene.”

The statement explained that the virus is mostly spread through inhaling aerosolised droplets and not through contact with surfaces, and that disposable products present similar issues to reusable products.

Consumer demand for compostable packaging to replace plastic packaging

Compostable flexible packaging company TIPA yesterday revealed results from a Populus poll, which intended to shed light on how perceptions of plastic have changed during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The poll results revealed that, despite the virus, 85% of consumers believe that compostables should replace plastic food packaging and 58% are willing to pay more for it. Alongside this, 67% of consumers expressed concern about increased plastic waste during the UK lockdown.

TIPA CEO and co-founder Daphna Nissenbaum said: “The vast majority of UK consumers are concerned about increased plastic waste, and they are looking to the food industry and the government to empower them to buy sustainable alternatives, even if it costs more.

“While conventional plastics continue to endanger our oceans, wildlife, natural areas, and our health, compostable packaging can fully degrade and return to the earth safely.

“Now is the time for decision-makers to show leadership, and encourage compostable packaging for the sake of the natural environment.”

Sustainability still an important drive for businesses and consumers

Paper products group James Cropper marketing and technical director Richard Bracewell told Packaging Gateway: “The drive for sustainability and eco-friendly packaging has not been abated. We are seeing increased interest and demand for recycled papers, including CupCycling, our innovation to upcycle used coffee cups and transform them into beautiful papers. This demand is coming from across the board in terms of industries.

“Many brands have their own sustainability ambitions, devised by listening to their customers’ needs, that go above and beyond regulatory requirements. For example, in the fragrance and cosmetics sector, we are seeing increased interest from consumers, not only on the provenance of the ingredients that go into the products themselves but the packaging itself.”

Irish corrugated packaging company Smurfit Kappa Group found that, as well as being important to businesses and consumers, sustainability is still driving research and development (R&D) despite Covid-19.

Results from the company’s Sustainability and Profitability Survey, conducted in collaboration with the Financial Times, revealed that: “In the face of this uncertainty, leading businesses […] are moving from global conversation to corporate action” in a push to remain relevant, with 83% of businesses describing sustainability as a business opportunity to be exploited and 72% describing sustainability as a lasting trend.

Packaging companies need to become ethically responsible

Luxury retail sector packaging provider Delta Global CEO and founder Robert Lockyer told Packaging Gateway: “In what’s becoming a tough economic and environmental recovery period, customers have raised expectations for brands to meet their ethical needs. There is much talk of the three R’s which we as a packaging provider wholeheartedly live by; Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, we’ve even added a fourth R, Repurpose.”

Lockyer added that packaging will need to “transcend its physical form” in order to add value, such as through messaging, customer experience, and socially responsible initiatives.

He said: “With concerns around safety and a widened physical distance between brands and consumers, messages with a personal touch are definitely the best way forward if companies are to rebuild trust and customer confidence following this disruption. Printed URLs and scannable QR codes should be placed on the item that will take you through to personalised ‘thank you’ messages from brands, or styling advice guides on the company’s website.

“Not only are these much more environmentally friendly options, these tactics will also ensure retention and offer another touchpoint to remarket to existing customers and build long-term relationships.”