The coronavirus outbreak has stirred up the plastic packaging debate, what does the future hold for plastics?

Some in the foodservice industry have used the Covid-19 crisis to highlight the message that plastic is vital for protecting food from germs and extending its shelf life. Others have noted that the pandemic has highlighted the fact that disposable plastic is unsustainable and is a carrier of harmful bacteria.

So where does plastic sit in the time of coronavirus?

Before the outbreak, many brands were moving towards sustainable, plant-based options for packaging and had started to create a circular plastics economy.

For example, Nestle signed the European Plastics Pact, a commitment to make 100 percent of its packaging recyclable or reusable and reduce its use of virgin plastic by one third by 2025. There are 81 members of the European Plastics Pack including 15 governments and 66 companies.

In April 2022 the UK will introduce a new plastics packaging tax, manufacturers and importers will be charged per tonne on packaging made from less than 30 percent recycled plastic.

However, plastic items that politicians were looking to ban are now in demand due to hygiene considerations. In the US, the Plastics Industry Association chimed into the debate with a letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services. It claimed that single-use plastic products are the most sanitary choice when it came to the consumption and transport of food.

GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, has noted that concerns around food hygiene due to Covid-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, which is likely to hurt the sustainability efforts of the industry in the near term.

Sustainability has been a big trend in the past few years and many companies in the APAC region have switched to more eco-friendly alternatives. However, since the outbreak of coronaviru, companies may resort to plastic packaging to combat the spread of the pandemic putting the sustainability aspect on the back seat.

Aseptic single-use packaging is back in fashion after food and beverage brand Yakult launched its first aseptic products on the Korean ambient market in Ecolean Air Aseptic lightweight packages. In addition, the adoption of disposable packaging is likely to gain traction due to the temporary rise in demand in food delivery and takeaway.

“Single-use packaging, which has faced lots of criticism in recent years because of environmental concerns, might be seen as a better packaging alternative from a hygiene point of view because of limited handling/access of the inner products,” explained Arvind Kaila, Practice Head of Consumer Beverages at GlobalData. “This may hurt sustainability goals set forth by governing bodies and businesses alike.” 

Is this a long-term trend? Or is this demand for plastic packaging only temporary?

There has been clear evidence of the positive affect the pandemic has had on the planet. With humans in lockdown, few cars on the roads and less companies in action the earth’s pollution rates have significantly improved. The high volume sharing of this evidence on social media, from satellite images to viral stories about happy animals, is proof that most people still consider environmental effects important.

Plastic packaging may be our friend in some circumstances right now, but in the long term the trend towards plant-based and eco-friendly alternatives will not slow, and for the sake of a sustainable planet, nor should it.