Will the coronavirus change how we use plastic packaging?

Discussion
Photo: @AZ.BLT via Twenty20
Apr 08, 2020
Doug Garnett

“We need plastic” has not been a common refrain among consumers and retailers in recent times.

Yet as shoppers and retailers have had their attention shifted to surviving the coronavirus pandemic, there’s been a dramatic shift to foods packaged in plastics.

Retailers have replaced open bins with pre-packaged goods. Many stores no longer allow customers to bring their own bags in the store. Even the natural foods store is individually wrapping bagels in my neighborhood.

Why? Plastic packaging helps ensure food safety in a world panicked by a pandemic.

The truth is that the plastic debate has been stuck between naive extremes. On one side, all plastic is bad. On the other, all plastic use is endorsed because it’s profitable and convenient.

The truth is more complex.

Beyond plastics, there are few effective and inexpensive options for protecting the food supply. Plastic packaging also offers tremendous advantages in manufacturing and for display in the store.

Plastics do pollute the environment badly and take hundreds of years to decay. Without changes in plastics manufacturing and/or its use, estimates are that the oceans will be overrun by 2050.

Efforts to improve recyclability or make biodegradable substitutes are a long way from creating a profitable home-grown recycling industry. Recycling is so difficult that many off-shore destinations have started rejecting U.S. plastics.

Perhaps, we need to treat plastics as a public health issue. Let’s move the discussion away from the extremes and focus on how to responsibly make, use and dispose of/recycle plastics.

What would that mean? For one, it would mean arriving at a national consensus on the legitimate uses of the material. It would also mean increased funding and focus on recycling and the development of biodegradables. It may take a national effort subsidized by the federal government to make recycling work in the U.S.

The chaos in the market for plastics and alternatives has created more challenges than it has solved. The coronavirus pandemic makes it clear that society cannot win as long as this chaos rules. It’s time for change.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think consumers and retailers will look at plastic packaging any differently after the coronavirus pandemic has ended? What will it take to fix the nation’s plastic challenge going forward?

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"Consumers and retailers will definitely look at how they can more efficiently and more effectively use plastic packaging differently post-pandemic."

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21 Comments on "Will the coronavirus change how we use plastic packaging?"


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Keith Anderson
BrainTrust

A pre-print research paper from the National Institutes of Health shows that viable coronavirus could be detected in aerosols up to three hours post aerosolization, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

Public opinion is influencable in many ways, only one of which is with facts. I hope that policy makers, merchants, and manufacturers look carefully at the long-term public health, environmental, and economic considerations and act responsibly and in proportion to the realities we face, as the stakes are higher than is widely discussed.

Bethany Allee
BrainTrust

My family has discussed the polarizing nature of plastic during every grocery shipment disinfection session we’ve had so far, because plastic makes it easier. If you would have told us a few months ago we’d be cheering for plastic containers, I would have thought you were insane. Right now, we’re throwing plastic grocery bags straight in the trash! It makes my heart hurt, but even if I wanted to recycle them, I couldn’t, because our recycling is shut down because of COVID-19.

This article hits the nail on the head, it is a difficult issue, because both sides are overly idealistic.

Consumers and retailers will definitely look at how they can more efficiently and more effectively use plastic packaging differently post-pandemic. Fixing it is a tricky question for the reasons you’ve outlined above.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Plastic is experiencing a retail renaissance.

In 2019, global consumers waged a war on plastic waste; in 2020, we prefer products protected by plastic.

At least as long as this global pandemic lingers, we will view plastic as an ally that keeps us and our loved ones safe.

However, our increased use of plastic means more shopping bags will pile up in landfills and plastic waste will continue to harm marine life. Eventually sustainability-minded consumers will reward companies that invest in cardboard, paper, aluminum and glass packaging.

But, for now, we’re focused on our own survival, even if it means reverting to old habits.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

If nothing else, this whole scenario will accelerate the development of a biodegradable alternative to everyday use plastic. It’s long overdue.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Everything we are going through now will accelerate everything; behavior, business, retailing, supply chain. I don’t see a right turn of trends, I see What might have been forecast as happening in 10 years actually happening in half that time or faster.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
Jeff – You’re right of course that it is long overdue, but the problem is that plastic doesn’t really degrade. For example you can make a bag, say, out of plastic and corn starch and the corn starch will degrade — leaving you with tiny pieces of plastic so small they easily permeate the soil and find their way into water supplies. Or you could landfill the plastic, but a.) we will eventually run out of space; and b.) it will never degrade because degradation requires oxygen and properly built landfills are anaerobic. So the right answers might be to reduce or eliminate the mass use of plastic (probably not too plausible) or find some cost effective, commercial use for it. I’m not an engineer, so I have no idea if this even makes sense, but finding a way to mix it into highway paving materials or other structural uses comes to mind. Until it is more lucrative to use it in a cost effective commercial way, I’m afraid the problem will continue to get… Read more »
Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

There are technologies in their infancy which use chemicals to revert plastics to a fluid. One of the links below discusses a specific case of this. It gets closer to fully re-using the material. Unfortunately, it’s not able to be a “for profit” business at this time.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Thanks for the additional clarity. I was being a little simplistic, pining for the day when some plastic-like material will biodegrade to a totally benign state. Until then, it appears that some short-term solutions only create additional long-term challenges.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Just as we are seeing the drastic acceleration of digital commerce and online shopping during the coronavirus pandemic, plastic packaging is on the rise as well. Plastic packaging is on the rise as consumers and retailers believe it’s safer and will not transmit the virus at the same levels paper or reusable bags will. However, the overriding theme coming out of the pandemic is that we should heed what scientists have learned.

A recent UCLA study shows that coronavirus can remain on plastic products for up to two or three days. If not properly cleaned before any contact is made, plastic packaging may not be as safe as we assumed. What the pandemic is proving is that we need a far more sustainable and responsible strategy for bulk grocery shopping.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

The correct answer is, who knows how anyone will look at anything after the pandemic has ended?

In terms of packaging and public health, shed viruses can live almost three times longer on plastic than they can on paper or cardboard, making plastic packaging less desirable in the short run from a health standpoint as well as less desirable in the long term because of environmental concerns. We can’t kill the oceans and survive, and we can’t keep burying plastic in landfills where — if the landfills are properly constructed and maintained — it will never degrade. But, so far, consumers have put short-term convenience ahead of the survival of our species and all other life forms that require oxygen. The more the ocean is choked by plastics, the likelier to make life, at least as we know it, impossible. If there is a trend toward pre-packed foods again, and there might well be post-pandemic, the time is now to think about what they will be packaged in.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Right now plastic packaging is seen as a potential life saver. Once the crisis passes, we will hopefully see it as a problem that needs to be fixed — and quickly. Ironically, we were just informed that Waste Management wants all trash placed in trash bags.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Plastics help product safety, however one aspect that seems to be rarely discussed these days is simple recycling. Even today millions of households have no convenient way to recycle plastics. Only 28 percent of Americans live in areas that strongly encourage recycling. My belief is that if infrastructure investment to build more recycling plants was allocated, and consumer awareness was addressed, fewer concerns about plastic waste may be voiced.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

I’ve also pondered how we spent so many years building the “number” system for plastics…only to find out that it wasn’t able to work. Seems like the system was put in place with “hope” that we’d sort it out. But whatever works for plastics will have to be different.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

You’re right, Doug. And perhaps the current crisis will shed some light on it.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Someone sent me this link today — a story on NPR about that phase. Classic accusation of the industry for promoting plastics as recyclable when they weren’t. I’m always cautious about how quickly we like to blame industries. And, I’d expect it happening in some ways.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has placed packaging concerns in conflict with sustainability and environmental issues. I think we will return to reusable shopping bags. However, the sale of produce will continue to be a shopper concern. This should give real impetus to the research and development of more biodegradable packing materials.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Over the short term, there is absolutely no doubt that consumers will prioritize their health – and what they believe to be things that preserve it – over sustainability issues. That said, over the longer term, I suspect concerns over plastics will move back near the top of the agenda.

Liz Crawford
BrainTrust

The mandate for recycling is more important than ever. Many consumers aren’t recycling at all, others have limited ability to do so. Plastic doesn’t need to be evil per se, but only if we use it responsibly. That may be a big ask.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Here in the Pacific Northwest we’ve lost nearly all ability to recycle plastic of any type. It had been shipped off to China. But it turned out no one seems to know how to keep their plastic clean and last fall China rejected it all. Was made more complicated by a sense that much of what we were doing was just shipping it to a different landfill — just not one in our community.

A tough problem.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

With COVID-19, watching grocery clerks stuff food into dirty cloth bags is, to say the least, unappetizing. The same clerk dragging my food across the footprint of the previous shopper’s dirty bags is like abandoning social distancing. The yin and the yang of the road to the invention of a recyclable alternative to the plastic bag. A brilliant opportunity!

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Plastic’s finest hour? Perhaps. But methinks a more nuanced view is that there’s value in having backups. As with much else that comes out of this episode, we will find that fundamental beliefs don’t really change, and if paper was (generally) “better” B(efore)C(ovid), it will be after as well.

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