We are all swimming in a sea of voices analyzing the impacts of COVID-19 on all aspects of society. Packaging plays a starring role in this conversation due to its role in protecting products, as well as being a human contact point. But what about the sustainability of packaging?
Most companies are hyper focused on employee safety and the economy. Here are some important considerations for sustainable packaging during these times — and where to go from here.
Will people still care about better managing single-use plastics after the crisis is over?
Prior to the crisis, there was a loud call-to-action surrounding better recovery of post-consumer packaging materials and a demand to use less packaging whenever possible.
It seems, however, that priorities have shifted towards product safety and the role that packaging plays (along with other single-use items like plastic gloves) in product safety. Yet, litter will not cease to be an issue following the COVID-19 crisis. Ironically, many communities are seeing high rates of gloves and masks ending up as litter. The need to find better waste management solutions will undoubtedly follow us into the future.
The economic impact of the crisis has further potential implications for where priorities are placed. Some consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) are anticipating large decreases in sales, which means some might have fewer resources to put towards sustainability. This is not the case for all companies however, as some companies have already signaled that sustainability will continue to be a central focus for them, and some sectors are thriving economically, like medical packaging and e-commerce. The imperative to make sustainability a priority will continue as a long-term trend.
Is reusable packaging safe?
We have seen news around reusable bag bans in certain states like New Hampshire as well as at some retailers. In addition, some governments are issuing (temporary?) rollbacks of single-use plastic packaging bans, like in the UK. These choices are being made as a precaution based on fear that the virus can survive several days on plastic, and that reusable bags increase opportunities for exposure compared to single-use plastic. This concern is not limited to bags, as COVID-19 has also raised concerns about the safety of refillable personal tumblers (Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have temporarily discontinued filling these), and reusable foodservice-ware for restaurant delivery and takeout.
It’s important to point out that reusable packaging can be disinfected when it gets home or to a distribution center. In commercial models, washing and sanitizing have always been central to many reusable packaging models for restaurants and others. Depending on the system in place, reusable packaging might actually decrease opportunities for exposure when one company is able to control the supply chain by owning and cleaning their own reusable packaging.
Is single-use packaging safe?
The same concerns about cleanliness that apply to reusables also apply to single-use packaging. For example, when a cashier hands a customer a bag when checking out, or when customers pick up and look at a package before they purchase a product, or when they throw away or recycle that package at home — it presents a potential exposure pathway.
Although there is uncertainty surrounding the viral load actually present on packaging, we cannot rule out the possibility that single-use packaging might expose waste haulers and recyclers downstream.
And what about compostable packaging? Does compost get hot enough to kill the virus? The jury is still out on this.
In response to such concerns, we are starting to hear more about antimicrobial additives and antiviral packaging, which at this point have unknown implications for actual safety and recyclability. In the face of a lot of uncertainty, it makes sense to be cautious in the handling of both single-use and reusable packaging.
Should we be using less packaging right now?
There is currently little scientific information about the survival of COVID-19 on the surface of open food, but some research has emerged on the virus’ ability to survive on different surfaces, like paper and plastic. So, is it better to use less packaging?
We still need more research. For food packaging, the perennial concern is that using less packaging for food might inadvertently increase food waste, which has a larger overall environmental impact than packaging. As pictures of empty shelves proliferate online as people hoard food (a potentially regrettable downside of human nature), another consideration is that this food may sit longer in peoples’ refrigerators, and so packaging’s role to reduce food waste becomes especially critical.
What are the implications for recycling?
We have seen a flurry of news and information about communities suspending recycling programs due to concerns over worker safety, including dozens of curbside suspensions and closure of some drop-off centers. Some materials recovery facilities (MRFs) are operating at lower capacity or have shut down. The majority of states with bottle bills have relaxed requirements and enforcement for retailers.
On the flip side, the number of programs being shut down is a small percentage of total recycling programs. And many other communities are still in full operation, as waste management is an essential service. Much is still progressing as normal with recycling workers on the frontlines across the country every day. Innovations in recycling systems like use of robotics for sortation, may help to increase worker safety in the future.
As many businesses remain closed, there is less material coming from commercial sources. There are some concerns about a supply shortage of recycled content. In addition, the quality of recycled content is also changing with more material now coming from residential recycling. This might mean the quality of recycled content available is lower (as is generally the case for the quality of residential versus commercial material), although hard data is lacking.
The health of the recycling system generally follows the health of the economy, and there are looming fears over the potential impacts of a wider economic downturn on the recycling system. Many brands are asking themselves how all of this is going to impact their ability to meet their sustainable packaging goals. Certainly, there is a clear imperative for the packaging community to invest in supporting this system in the near future.
What are other systemic impacts?
The packaging and sustainability sectors host a lot of events. Events have played a key role in connecting the industry to advance sustainable packaging. Many industries are working to get creative and explore what they can achieve virtually. SPC’s open content and learning opportunities via virtual events are available to keep conversations going and momentum high around sustainable packaging.
Right now, we have more questions than answers. Even as priorities and budgets shift, sustainable packaging isn’t going away. Society sometimes has a short-term memory. In the long run, we need to remember that protecting public health and the planet go together. We should take this opportunity to consider all of these points in conjunction, and work towards designing for the safe and sustainable future that we all want.
In the post-COVID world, we should choose to reinvest in the economy that puts environmental issues like waste, climate change, and biodiversity loss at the center of our approach. The Green Recovery Alliance has called for a worldwide alliance of politicians, decision-makers, business leaders, trade unions, and civil society groups to support a green transition after the pandemic. The packaging industry should take the lead in thinking about what this means for packaging.