At the start of 2020, two United Kingdom supermarket chains, Tesco and Waitrose, announced that their store-brand products and canned foods would no longer use plastic wrapping. The announcement was part of a growing trend to move away from plastic packaging.
But as COVID-19 spread, the trend has slowed down and even reversed. The United Kingdom has actually imported an additional 120,000 metric tonsof plastic in the past 10 weeks in the form of packaging for soaps, sanitizers, bottles and wipes.
The suppliers were needed to ensure safety, but indicates just how difficult it will be for maufacturers to embrace sustainable packaging, especially during a health crisis. Plastic packaging is frequently used because it's cheap, robust and flexible in its uses.
Mick Clark, sales director of contract packing specialist WePack, said polyethylene is a versatile option, which makes it popular.
"It can be made more flexible or rigid according to the pack style that you want," he said. "You can order it low or high density, low slip, high slip, which means that they put additives into the PE that allow it to work better for different applications. PE is a very useable film."
The cost effectiveness of plastic is particularly desirable for manufacturers during economic difficulties, like the one also associated to COVID-19. Companies will be looking to reduce spending where they can, including packaging materials. Plastic is a versatile packaging solution, Clark said.
The leading hurdle manufacturers face is finding an alternative material that is as adaptable as plastic. Eco-friendly alternatives need to match plastic in costs, durability and adaptability.
"If the idea is to get away from plastic completely, then the ultimate alternative would be [card stock]," Clark said. "The best type of card to use will need to be decided. It's got to be strong, workable and printable."
Cardboard offers low costs and decent adaptability. However, it falters when it comes to durability, he noted.
"Using a cardboard sleeve has been done before. But the trouble is that they can look scruffy if they get damp, unlike plastic, or if another product leaks on it," he said. "Cardboard looks awful if it gets marked, it can't be wiped clean. It is immediately wrecked. It tears easily."
But while COVID-19 has inevitably slowed drastic changes in packaging, that doesn't mean it has completely stopped the process. But consumers may need to change their purchasing habits, Clark said.
"Consumers will adapt and flex to the movement," he said. "They know it's for the good of the world. I don't think there are many people out there that will stop buying beans because they aren't in a plastic wrap. You take what's on the shelf.
"I think plastic is a vital and useful material that should always be used for packaging, even if it's reduced, until something can replace it. If something can effectively be packed in an alternative material that's great, but that's not always viable. I don't know if it will ever cease, not for a long time at least," he said.