COVID-19's Impact on the Packaging Industry

By Saul Menjivar Published on Nov. 24, 2020

Before COVID-19, companies were progressing quickly toward their sustainability goals. However, the coronavirus pandemic has negatively affected a multitude of industries around the world, especially the packaging industry. Packaging companies were coming up with innovative technologies that were friendly to the environment, reusable, and biodegradable. But concerns about the hygiene and safety of reusable packaging temporarily halted the packaging industry’s progress towards a sustainable and circular supply chain. The specific areas in the packaging industry that have been affected include: Increase in Digital Printing, Consumer Preferences, E-commerce, New or Heightened Hygiene and Consumer-Safety Concerns, Redefined Sustainability, and Increase of Single Use Plastics and lifted bans.

Following the pandemic, packaging companies will need to rebalance sustainability goals that incorporate heightened hygiene, normalize e-commerce, and take product cost into consideration. The impact of the pandemic will have a positive effect on performance, because these new trends will highlight customers’ needs across the industry.

Rise of Single-Use Plastic and Lifted Bans

The battle for reducing plastic waste has been, on the whole, a hot initiative. Countries around the world started banning single-use plastics, including Colombia, parts of the United States, China, Zimbabwe, Albania, Cameroon, Romania, and many other countries. Companies were announcing targets that they planned to meet by a certain year in the effort to become as sustainable as possible. Unfortunately, when COVID-19 began, consumers became concerned that a person could get the virus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or another person. The virus seems to be able to survive on cardboard for about 24 hours, and on plastic for up to three days. Even though the exact danger was unknown, sustainability programs decreased or paused in the early months of the pandemic. Several countries and US states have paused and lifted bans on single-use plastics and have even banned reusable bags temporarily.

Supermarkets saw an increase in single-use plastics for wrapping products. This was the immediate safety response that places initiated for the health and safety of people across the globe. The amount of plastic waste generated in Thailand hassurged by 15% with COVID-19, despite the country’s ban on plastic bags that was introduced in January 2020.

The United Kingdom was on its way to legislate banning the sale of plastic drinking straws, plastic-stemmed cotton buds, and plastic stirrers. UK Environment Minister Rebecca Pow confirmed that this will be delayed, since discarding single-use plastic products that may carry virus droplets is safer. Originally, the regulations were laid in March and set to come into force in April. In the US, some states like New York and New Jersey, have been calling for delays on plastic bans, fearing that reusable bags carry the virus. This pushback increased demand for products like bottled water and disposable sanitizers.

Below are some companies in our ecosystem that can balance the rise of single-use plastics and lifted bans during the pandemic.

Fuenix

In Fuenix’s innovative Ecogy® process, they ‘crack’ the polymers in plastic to a molecular level. This gives a unique double advantage: first, they can upcycle end-of-life plastics that, at this moment, still go to waste. And consequently, at the same time, they can create ‘new’ high-quality raw materials.

The process not only reduces the amount of virgin materials that we take, it also offers the opportunity to provide a solid solution for the world’s increasing plastic pollution problem. Above that, by reducing 65% CO2 emissions (compared to alternative recycling methods), it is done in a relatively clean way.

Nantek

Nantek developed a proprietary thermo-chemical process, designed and used to turn plastic waste into valuable feedstock for oil & gas refineries and for plastic manufacturing firms. This chemical recycling technology is based in a pyrolysis process where we add innovative reactive agents based on certain nano-elements.

Rebricks Indonesia

Rebricks Indonesia is a company whose mission is to be a solution for the plastic problem in Indonesia by turning plastic waste into building materials. They focus our research on recycling multi-layered plastic (sachet) waste.

Cleanhub

Cleanhub is on a mission to free the planet from plastic pollution by offering verifiable environmental impact solutions to brands. They calculate a company’s packaging emissions, and based on those emissions, they will match the client with a project that collects the amount of plastic needed to go plastic neutral.

Lucro Plastecycle

Lucro Plastecycle recycles locally-sourced flexible plastic waste to manufacture flexible packaging products, such as shrink wrap and films. It also supplies recycled plastic granules to manufacturers for their production.

Redefined Sustainability + New or Heightened Hygiene = New Normal

Companies have decided to prioritize hygiene and food-safety issues. Tony Radoszewski, President and CEO of the Plastic Industry Association, stated in March: “Plastics have been the material of choice in the medical field for decades and we live healthier, longer, and better because of these materials. The global plastics industry stands ready to assist authorities and public health advocates in making sure our materials and products are on the frontline of combating the spread of coronavirus.”

To help manage hygiene concerns during the current state of emergency, single-use packaging has spiked, while reusable packaging has faltered.

Although the virus drew attention away from sustainability efforts in packaging, sustainability is still a priority for consumers. Smurfit Kappa Group found that sustainability is still driving research and development despite COVID-19. There is still debate over whether the virus should affect packaging. An open letter from scientists around the world urged that “reuse and refill systems are an essential part of addressing the plastic pollution crisis” and concluded that “reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene.”

With the pandemic being a part of our everyday lives, we must accustom our approach to a balance of both sustainability and hygienic needs as a new trend in the packaging industry. Below are just some recent companies developing innovative new solutions to packaging.

Blue Lake Packaging

Blue Lake Packaging develops proprietary, 100% fiber-based materials, design, and deliver sustainable packaging products and specialty functions. By enabling engineering and manufacturing processes, we break fundamental barriers of material formulation, cost, and exit treatment.

Geosphere Packaging

Geosphere uses plant-based materials that will break down into water, carbon dioxide, and soil.

In a circular economy, material cycles are closed loops. For a circular economy to work, the materials we use must be readily renewable, non-toxic to the environment, with an end-of-use built into the original design. Because so many products, like packaging, are thrown away after a very short time in use, the materials we choose for these items MUST be convertible either into renewed raw material (recycling) or back into their chemical building blocks. After decades of relying exclusively on recycling to reduce waste to landfill, the world has had to admit to itself that system is not sufficient, and in some cases has broken down completely.

Boostani

Bostani creates a compound for monomaterial packaging, becoming a solution for recyclable barrier packaging. Single-use plastics for food packaging often consist of multilayered structures of different types of plastic material. These multilayers are essential to achieve the main barrier properties that are needed to meet all requirements. The use of plastic in the food packing industry has led to enormous reduction in food waste. On the other hand, multilayer structures cannot be separated which prevents first and secondary recycling processes. A solution is needed that enables plastic used for food packaging to be fully recyclable.

Boostani B.V. develops masterbatches and compounds for monomaterial packaging solutions with barrier properties. Instead of different layers, Boostani B.V. uses additives to create barriers. The proportion of additive to material is so small that Boostani B.V. material is classified as monomaterial solution and therefore recyclable.

Orera Technology

Orera Technology provides affordable, sustainable, and eco-friendly alternative solutions to single use packaging materials. Our vision is to pave the way towards a cleaner future by reducing the world's plastic waste with focus on a circular economy. Established in 2017, Orera Technology set out with a mission to introduce innovative products and packaging in the Philippines and South East Asia that dramatically reduce waste and pollution in the region. The company works with local communities, governments, and companies to create a truly sustainable means of consuming and recycling disposable packaging.

Consumer Preferences and E-Commerce Demands

With strict quarantine occurring in the first few months of the pandemic and long lines at grocery stores to buy weeks worth of food to limit frequent visits, stores worldwide were seeing groceries and products running out quicker than usual. Many people are expecting the virus to negatively affect their finances and way of life as a whole until there is a vaccine. There have been shifts in consumer behavior both by category and by channel. Consumers are being mindful about what they want to spend their money on. Since older people are the most vulnerable to the virus and in some instances not able to leave their homes in certain countries, older generations have had to incorporate online shopping and adopt e-commerce because it is the safest option for them. This has caused an increase in only buying what is necessary, such as grocery and household supplies, and taking price into consideration. Online customer base has increased during the pandemic and many consumers say they plan to continue online shopping even when brick and mortar stores reopen. Acceleration of online shopping will continue to occur as there are more consumers online and because we do not know when the pandemic will end.

Direct to consumer has been the focus through an e-commerce platform with the stay at home orders in all aspects of consumer spending. Due to this trend, there is an increase with single-use packaging and wrapping for parcels shipped by e-commerce suppliers. This has caused an increase in e-commerce demands for one’s safety as shoppers are buying online and accelerating home-delivery services.

A Medallia Zingle survey found that 54% of consumers are still limiting their in-person shopping and choosing curbside pickup and delivery more. 25% of respondents said that they are exclusively relying on contactless and delivery services except for emergencies.

Ecommerce spending is up by 18% in 2020 and Amazon has a giant 38% market share in the United States. Packaging has grown significantly globally, that a trillion dollars will be reached by the middle of next year in 2021.

With e-commerce at an all-time high, startups in the retail industry are utilizing data technology to improve consumer retail experiences online and may need to use sustainable packaging to limit waste.

Adhark

Adhark is an AI company that has created algorithms to replicate one of the most important human senses - sight - to give brands and agencies the power to see through the eyes of any consumer audience.

Adhark's cloud-based software provides the point of view of different consumer audiences by learning where they go online, analyzing the types of visual media they consume, and extracting the meaningful visual elements, patterns, and stimuli that influence behavior. With Adhark, leading brands are now using Artificial Intelligence to optimize imagery in order to boost conversion rates on e-Commerce, increase clickthrough rates on digital ads, drive more sales in stores, and gain new visual insight into their competitive landscape.

Foxintelligence

Foxintelligence delivers the best insights on the latest European ecommerce trends, by unlocking intelligence from hundreds of merchants and thousands of brands e-receipts. They provide the most reliable insights available for e-commerce while helping consumers save both time and money.

The Better Packaging Co.

The Better Packaging Co. develops sustainable packaging solutions that consider the complete lifecycle impact of a product from raw material sourcing, right through to end-of-life disposal.

Tishwish

Tishwish develops custom Sustainable & Home compostable packaging solutions from the ground up that would reduce the toll on the environment.

Digital Printing

Companies have been considering buying their own digital printers and designing their own packaging because this allows them to have flexibility to control their own supply chain, in terms of printing and packaging. This is advantageous because companies won’t have to worry about excess inventory and instead print on packaging when needed.

Packaging has had a spotlight on digital printing, but when the pandemic hit, the demand for digital printing increased more than ever. That was seen especially in cleaning supplies and sanitizers because the issue is not producing these products, but having the packaging for it and label printed on them. The packaging was not available and that was seen with shortages of cleaning supplies and sanitizers in the early months of the pandemic. Stores worldwide had to put a limit on the number of these products that customers could purchase within a visit.

The global digital printing packaging market is estimated to reach $28 billion by 2024. More and more innovations are occurring with digital printing and companies wanting to bring this in house. Below are some companies innovating in this space.

Foxpak

Foxpak prints and manufactures bespoke flexible packaging solutions for hundreds of clients from early-stage development to mass production. They utilise flexographic and gravure printing to provide cost effective packaging for volume production.

Sensor Films

Sensor Films Inc. is leading the development of digital manufacturing processes with widespread industrial applications. The Starlight Digital Manufacturing Platform built on ink jet deposition of decorative and functional materials is enabling rapid, low cost prototyping and efficient high volume production in specialty graphics and printable electronics industries.

Eclat Digital

Eclat Digital simulates photo-realistic images based on physical and accurate material data. Their virtual prototypes allow customers to converge faster to the best solution without the cost of physical samples. Predicting the final appearance of your project, anticipating undesired parasitic lighting effects, specific optical studies or comparing different material appearance are only few examples of what this unique technology can do.

OceanTM

OceanTM is a ray-tracing software that generates physically-true predictive images and lighting quantification for both engineering and design applications. Simulations are based on CAD models and accurate material data which can be, as a service, characterized by Eclat Digital.


If you are making a positive impact on the world, join our Sustainability accelerator program today.