Has COVID-19 put a spanner in the works for sustainable packaging?

Jul 06, 2020 by Mark Dingley

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Reusable coffee cups are banned. Single-use takeaway packaging has increased. Disposable wipes are given out at the entrances of supermarkets and cafes.

It would be easy to say that sustainability has taken a backseat during the coronavirus pandemic.

Just before the COVID-19 outbreak, sustainable packaging was high on the agenda for FMCG brands and manufacturers. The year 2020 was set to be the Year of Sustainability, building on the momentum of banning single-use plastics and innovating with recyclable and reusable materials. We were decisively marching towards the 2025 National Packaging Targets.

Then along came COVID-19.

Coronavirus, and the life-altering changes it brought, caused a fast shift in mindset from packaging sustainability to product protection, shelf life, and safety first – you might say, the true purpose of packaging.

Take a look at the statistics:

  • GlobalData’s COVID-19 week-4 consumer survey revealed that some 43% of Australians agree that they are concerned about the safety of the packaging of the products they purchase.
  • A survey by FMCG Gurus found that 40% of global consumers now have more positive perceptions of packaging due to coronavirus, and that 55% are “more concerned” about the environment than before the crisis.

With the virus known to spread through touch, many foodservice chains have stopped using personal and reusable packaging (such as keep-cups). Traditional packaging formats and single-use plastics have been re-introduced to ensure the safe distribution of products. Many consumers are also purchasing more packaged fruits and vegetables than they would in the past.

life altering

Fresh food packaging, biscuit wrappers, pasta and bread bags, some ready-to-eat meal packaging, the wrapping around paper towels and toilet paper, postal and delivery sacks, and plastic shopping bags. Regretfully, too much of this soft plastic is ending up where it does not belong — the kerbside recycling bin — and that spoils our good recycling efforts as a country.”

But it’s not all bad news.

There is evidence of renewed efforts towards sustainable packaging even during the pandemic:

wildlife and plastic

Evidence #1: Amcor, Colgate-Palmolive, and Kimberly-Clark joined the World Wildlife Fund-led activation hub ReSource: Plastic

The hub aims to help accelerate large-scale plastic commitments by organisations. Its target by 2030 is to prevent at least 50 million tonnes of plastic waste from entering nature.

Colgate-Palmolive packaging sustainability manager, global design and packaging Anne Bedarf said the company’s goal to eliminate plastic waste includes making all its packaging recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025.

“It's important to understand how our efforts can bring solutions to scale, and only through collaboration can we meet our circularity goals and keep plastics out of nature,” she said.

Evidence #2: Woolworths is starting a partnership with Loop from 2021

Announced in October 2019, the partnership between Woolworths and TerraCycle's global cutting-edge zero-waste reusable packaging solution, Loop, means Australian grocery shoppers will be able to receive products from their favourite brands in reusable containers.

Consumers can shop in store or online, where products will be shipped in a specially designed tote. The consumer can then return empty containers to their local store or have them picked up when they are getting their next delivery.

Loop has previously partnered with retail giants globally, including the likes of Carrefour, Kroger and Tesco.

Evidence #3: Colgate-Palmolive has adopted 100% rPET preforms by Wellman Packaging for a range of household products

This follows on from an announcement by Sydney-based manufacturer of rigid plastics packaging, Wellman Packaging, that it was 100% rPET ready in late 2019.

As Craig Wellman, CEO and owner, told PKN, “However, making preforms and bottles at these high levels of rPET is not without its challenges technically and carries high costs versus virgin resin, so this translates to a real commitment by a senior brand owner to push through the barriers and deliver an excellent long-term outcome for the environment.”

The recycled PET is sourced from a number of Australian and international suppliers.

Evidence #4: Dineamic moves from plastic to eco-cardboard packaging for tray meals

The Australian ready-to-eat meal company moved to the new HaloPack recyclable eco packaging for its products, which are sold at Coles and IGA.

The new packs use 92% less plastic than its previous plastic tray and lid, saving 20 tonnes of plastic per year.

The Halopack board is made from 70% recycled board and 30% virgin board sourced via an FSC-certified supply chain in Europe.

eco-cardboard packaging

What next?

Let’s face facts: while COVID-19 is still here, consumers will continue to put safety first. But that won’t be the case forever. The sustainability problem is not going away, pandemic or no pandemic, so it’s the responsibility of companies, industry and the government to continue to drive innovation that delivers better sustainability solutions for packaging, and the whole supply chain.