A Covid-sized stumbling block in the road to plastics reduction

A Covid-sized stumbling block in the road to plastics reduction

 

2020 has forced the world to hit “pause” on life as we knew it, and in many cases, this includes progress in the transition to eco-friendly solutions…

 

If the packaging industry, manufacturers and consumers were slowly making progress in the pivot to environmentally friendly packaging solutions, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown up a mammoth-sized obstacle.

 

In the packaging world, few could have predicted the 2020 resurgence of one particular substrate… virgin plastics. Plastics use (and of course waste) has seen dramatic rises in the US, UK and across Europe. The global market for packaging is projected to swell by 5.5 per cent as a result of the pandemic, led by plastic, while, in April, the UK’s Foodservice Packaging Association reported that single-use cups and wrapped single-use cutlery were “in huge demand”. Meanwhile, plastics suppliers reported that packaging manufacturers for food and drink, bleach, soap and medicines were operating at record capacities.

 

Unsurprisingly, waste management companies have seen residential volumes markedly increase, including plastic products. This plastics hangover is, in part, a result of rushed panic purchases for the stocking of our “pandemic pantries”, say researchers, noting that cleaning products in plastic packaging saw an early peak, while consumer amenability to plastic-wrapped goods rose, in preference to former bulk food or unwrapped fresh produce choices.

 

With more takeaways, an uptick in disposable cutlery has followed, and many supermarkets have banned reusable bags, insisting on plastics instead. Not to mention the role plastics has played in PPE and social distancing measures in both hospital and office environments. Across the board, we’re seeing a resurgence in plastic – a reliance that’s largely down to all the same reasons plastic was lauded as a “wonder material” around 50 years ago: it’s malleable, inexpensive, and an effective barrier substance.

 

However, environmental advocates and many consumers are anxious. How big will our plastics hangover be, and will the pandemic put a permanent kink in widescale transition to environmentally friendly packaging?

 

Plastics: the retailer’s friend or foe in the face of Covid?

 

It’s always been the case that certain products require packaging; either for longevity or for consumer education. Today, private and national brands alike stand to enhance the consumer experience by incorporating value-adding content, such as recipes and flavour pairings, which tap into a widespread consumer need to inject novelty and excitement into their now well-worn at-home routines.

 

Some fresh foods last significantly longer in plastic wrapping, particularly in cases where foods are made available year round. The shelf life of cucumbers, for example, is extended by three days when wrapped in plastic film. With the supply chains of today put under immense pressure, food longevity stands to play a vital role in ensuring food availability. Longevity likewise prevents food wastage, which carries the potential to create three times the environmental damage through carbon emissions than the packaging itself.

 

Economically, conventional plastics may prove enticing compared with recycled plastic or reusable alternatives – particular as the price of virgin plastics is expected to fall. In a recent article from Wrap UK, experts noted that a sharp drop in demand for oil, caused by significant decline in travel, has resulted in a 70% decline in its price. Since the price of virgin plastics typically tracks changes in oil prices, it is possible that low virgin plastic prices could reduce demand for recycled plastics or alternative packaging substrates. This may be reinforced as national unemployment figures rise, budgets tighten, and savings are made across the value chain in attempts to meet the lower price point expectations of the target market.

 

A temporary blip?

 

With disruption in waste disposal and recycling streams, some academics have noted that the pandemic is “a wake-up call to governments and the waste sector to ensure that supply chains and markets for recyclates are diverse and resilient”. Fly tipping in the UK rose by 300% (from March to April), while in late May, ocean clean-up organisations began reporting gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitiser caught in currents and littering the sea floor, posing an increased threat to marine life.

 

This prompts us to ask, who is responsible for cleaning up our plastics hangover? And how will we solve the wicked problem of plastic waste and plastic leakage?

 

FMCG players large and small have made public statements around their commitment to viable, cost-effective long-term solutions to the plastics conundrum. Currently, FMCG retailers and producers are in a strong position: they have been the heroes who have provided essential foodstuffs, ensuring our health care workers, key workers, and the vulnerable in society have what they need to withstand this long and difficult period.

 

Although other sectors, such as the global fashion industry, are notorious polluters, product packaging is perhaps the most visible and therefore often falls under the gaze of those apportioning culpability. But setting that aside, if retailers and manufacturers can leverage the strength of their current position of positive public feeling and high consumer loyalty to advance their CSR objectives, they stand to gain immensely when the push for recycled and reusable packaging swings back.

 

Environmentalists are confident that the shift back to plastics will prove temporary, with some advocating a move towards seasonal availability, or a return to the old butcher’s shop method of wrapping items in paper. In the US, both New York and Maine have put the brakes on planned bans and charges levied on single-use plastics, to April and January 2021 respectively. In the UK, the ban on plastic straws and ear buds has been delayed until autumn, but is expected to move forward at that time. Similarly, Scotland’s rollout of a national deposit return system for plastic containers has been pushed back from an original start date of April 2020 to January 2021. However, all of these initiatives are expected to move forward eventually.

 

This spring, the UK government announced a tax which applies to plastic packaging produced in, or imported into the UK that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic, to take effect in 2022 – there is no indication yet that this tax will be postponed.

 

Building back better

 

Our observation is that many companies view it as their responsibility to “build back better” post-Covid, and together we are tuning into ongoing discussions between government and industry bodies as to how commerce may build more resilient supply chains and processes. Ideally, FMCG players should be encouraged to lead the green revolution through green investment funds, perhaps modelled on Europe’s Green New Deal, which may help them overcome upfront investment costs, as these remain manufacturers’ biggest barrier to implementing energy efficiency measures.

 

The development of scalable alternative substrates, including bioplastics, has long been gaining momentum. With the market now worth six times what it was a decade ago, their emergence is expected to challenge our reliance on conventional petroleum-based substrates. However, without outside support, stagnation caused by the closure of factories and obstacles in manufacturing and supply chain operations stand to slow their development significantly.

 

Despite a multitude of challenges, there is nevertheless prevailing certainty that the movement towards sustainability is here to stay, and its impact on the plastics sector will grow stronger in the coming years. The interest and investment in alternative substrates is expected to continue, leading to sustained development of recycled, biobased and biodegradable plastics. The trajectory the industry is on won’t be easily blown off course – even by a pandemic.

 

For those who keenly want to see eco-friendly solutions implemented, there are still plenty of reasons to remain optimistic. Although the twists and turns keep coming, the future of sustainable packaging is not yet written.

 

 

About the author:

Michael Duffy, global creative director and board director, Equator

An Equator US co-founder, Michael drives the business from both studio and boardroom to deliver operational efficiency and unrivalled creativity for clients. Splitting his time between Equator’s global studio locations, Michael develops collaborative practices across our network of studios, leveraging our under-one-roof model while harnessing global experience and insight to create outstanding value and cross-platform standout for America’s national and private brands.