COVID-19's impact on the plastics business is well known. But the pandemic also has brought about opportunities for the industry to reposition itself in ways not possible prior to the pandemic.
A recent panel discussion at the Plastics Packaging Summit organized by the Plastics Industry Association delved into just how the coronavirus has changed the world, at least for now, and some perceptions.
"I hate to say 'positive' in the same sentence with COVID," said Dwane Hahn, chief strategy officer at Paxxus Inc., a maker of flexible medical packaging.
But supply chain constraints brought on by COVID-19 have end users of Paxxus products, such as medical device manufacturers and diagnostic companies, more willing to look at alternate structures and materials, he said.
"For them, it's either shut down in some cases or look at alternative materials. And in the health care space, a fast change, historically, is three years. That is a fast change, anyone who is in that space will tell you that's true. Today, in some cases, we're seeing some people make changes in months with the support of the FDA," Hahn said.
"So I think in the end, we're not going to go back to three years, but we're not going to be three months. You are going to see a healthy review of what is the business risk and what can be done that statistically proves out can be very low risk when we make changes," he said. "I think that's going to be a positive outcome in our little space in the health care side of things."
As director of market development and sustainability for Pregis LLC, Jonathan Quinn said he has witnessed a decrease in anti-plastic sentiment that had been growing prior to the pandemic.
"The key thing that has come out of the COVID impact would be consumers really have seen the value that plastic provides," Quinn said. "It's enabling the products that they need to be delivered.
"Also, from a standpoint, it's been a very positive thing for our employees and the plants in which we operate to be deemed as essential workers. I think there's a lot of pride and benefit that comes from those people in knowing [this]," he said.
Hearing about the importance of plastics also helps counteract negative messaging around plastics that employees hear, Quinn said. Pregis makes a wide variety of flexible plastic packaging and protective products, including film and bags.
"Now we're deemed essential," he said. "I think really the key is consumer sentiment has shifted. The consumer has and is beginning to see and saw very clearly the value that plastic and flexible plastic packaging brings to their everyday life in enabling product protection. So all of those things really took off in a great way," he said.
"It's really an opportunity for us all as an industry to be proud of what we've been able to enable," Quinn said.
Hahn said plastics companies have been able to show their importance in helping the world battle the virus.
"During COVID, for my small company in particular, it's been very easy to create a real narrative around the lifesaving work that we've able to do," he said.
"It's very easy to explain that. Anyone understands that. So it's not just plastics floating in the ocean. Yes, that's a problem. Who can deny that? But there's plastics working their way through the supply stream to your hospital, to your home that are saving and impacting people's lives. It's so important that we focus on that and not just the negative. It's been — I hate to say easy — but it's made it more palpable for us to share that image and that brand of plastic, if you will, than ever before," Hahn said.