By Lucia Mollea, GLOBUS Correspondent
The Coronavirus pandemic has changed the dynamics of consumerism and trade. More and more, people of different ages and background have started to rely on shipments and online shopping, abandoning the traditional in-person kind of shopping. While shipment was popular already before the pandemic especially for non-essential goods, online purchases have now become the norm for basic products, as well.
This trend, together with the rising use of individual packaging in the shops (to isolate the products and guarantee the safety of the customers) have raised concerns around the impact that the pandemic might have on the environment. In order to mitigate such effects, effective alternatives to plastics must not only be developed but promoted and even enforced.
The trend of recycling-and-reusing has increased in the past few years, but its levels are still low. For example, less than 20% of recyclable plastics are actually recycled in Europe. With the COVID-19 pandemic, both companies and consumers have been prioritising their safety, and general advice has been not to reuse plastic bags and packaging. It follows that sustainability concerns have been at least partially neglected in the past few months. This is an unfortunate turn of events, which could potentially reset all the advances made in the past years regarding reusable items and materials.
It is then more important now than ever to find sustainable surrogates to plastics with the same cost-efficiency; since, if we don’t find them, the weight of plastic floating in the oceans is expected to surpass that of fish by 2050. The sustainability of packaging is determined in different ways. These depend on the materials used, on their reusability and on the productive process involved. Altogether, it might be problematic to produce packaging which is both sustainable and cost-efficient, but some big companies are already working towards this goal. For example, H&M made recycled paper bags that can be folded to become clothes hangers. Similarly, Nestle committed to using only recyclable packaging by 2025.
Another very important feature that sustainable packaging must have is to be fully trustable in terms of the quality of the service it should provide. Alternative packaging solutions mustn’t be any weaker than the traditional ones, as an improper packaging might cause the product inside to go to waste and have an equally, if not even more, negative impact on the environment.
The packaging industry is working towards having materials and products able to satisfy these requisites. Several industries are undertaking changes in their production strategies, and new companies have been recently founded that introduced sustainable packaging. Some of them are focusing on simplifying the materials used. Normally, plastic packaging would have several layers, so companies are working towards reducing them, to make them easier to recycle without compromising their performance.
Similarly, many companies and start-ups have been founded which promote either the use of reusable items – such as cups – to reduce carbon emissions and overall waste, or the production of plant-based packaging which is more environmentally-friendly. These are quickly growing worldwide and are expected to become more and more popular options in the future.
Finally, it is important to remember that consumers are the real determinants in the success of sustainable packaging. No matter how much firms invest in them, it is necessary that products coming in sustainable wrapping are preferred by customers. It is then necessary to sensitise the population to the importance of choosing more sustainable products.
In conclusion, the spread of COVID-19 has put an even higher importance on the necessity of finding alternatives to plastic packaging. Various firms of different sizes and fields have been working towards reducing their waste and producing sustainable packaging. These efforts include finding: alternative materials, reducing the net weight of plastics used when packing items, and promoting reusable items where possible. Overall, all the innovative approaches are positive developments for the environment, but it is important to remember that they can only make a difference if consumers recognise their importance and decide to support these efforts on the market.