One of the key things we have to understand is that our place on this planet is very fragile and our unsustainable lifestyle can quickly lead to our removal from the space we occupy in the current ecosystem of the planet. And make no mistake; we only occupy the single ecosystem of Earth today. Plastic, in packaging, plays a crucial role, yet is looked upon as detrimental when it comes to providing a functional supporting pillar in our everyday lives.
The plastic that we interact with in our daily lives that we are encouraged to look upon in a negative way, despite all the convenience and benefits that it provides us, is unrealistic. We are indoctrinated to see plastic packaging as unsustainable. Unless the world acts, for instance, human kind would have dumped 1.3 billion tons of plastic waste on land and water bodies by 2040, and 2.2 billion tons would be burned by the same time.
Last year, the planet’s approach to seeking more sustainable solutions that looks towards resetting our relationship with the so-called plastic menace, has further accelerated, despite plastic providing significant hygiene, tactile and non-viral transmission benefits.
Nevertheless, for all the talk about sustainability, the only real change when it comes to store shelves being lined with top quality sustainable products that come from non fossil-fuel-based products that participate in the circular economy and resolve both the stock and flow problem of the polymer cycle, will be resolved when consumers truly vote with the currency with which they buy their products. Only then will brand owners and large consumer companies choose sustainable packaging and more responsible ingredients for the products that they manufacture.
The pandemic: An inflexion point for the packaging industry
The pandemic has certainly spiked consumers’ interest in their own well-being and made them more aware of quality and food safety. In India, more than 95% of respondents in a recent survey were concerned about the safety of food packaging and hygiene as compared to before the pandemic started. Similar higher statistics are coming out of developed markets as well.
Another trend that of doing more and better with less is emerging in this time of crisis. Consumer spending habits and lifestyles are encouraging businesses to commit to better hygiene standards, better recycling materials and placing greater emphasis on designing polymers from the ground level that will lead to better, sustainable solutions down the line.
As work from home becomes the norm, there is a greater emphasis on contact-less packaging, and for packaged goods that are consumed from home, like meals, fresh produce, sanitary goods, and a variety of other products. The design emphasis is beginning to shift from the traditional brick and mortar packaging models that were designed for the store shelf to online shipments that are becoming more important (as opposed to ensuring optimum temperature in transit for medical and perishable goods.)
Breaking down the paradigm shift
We do feel that restaurants and social events and gatherings will make a strong comeback. The fastest growing segment that has risen out of Covid-19 is "protective barrier packaging" to protect the fragility of items during large transit times. When you break down the paradigm shift that’s happened due to Covid-19, packaging became much more price-sensitive while also becoming more and more eco-friendly, and lining up more and more with the story behind the product was the way it was packaged. People became more aware that all plastics are not the same, and brands became more aware of how their consumers want to use their product…for example, how they want it to be recycled and be reused. This increased transparency, in turn, led to better packaging design and to better packaging optimization.
A unique example of 100% recyclable plastic is PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) – commonly used for the packaging of water bottles and soft drinks – being up-cycled for better use in the packaging chain. Given its profitability, some EU countries are even setting collection targets of 90% of the post-consumer used PET bottles.
With stakeholders up and down the value chain converting more and more to sustainable practices, new technologies have been introduced, making sure the possibility of a circular plastic economy. For instance, PCR grade polyester films with low carbon footprints that are upcycled with the use of up to 100% recycled resin material inputs. These films exhibit the same properties as fossil fuel based packaging films and enable initiation of closed loop recycling projects with desirous brands.
Likewise, mono-materials supports many global sustainability initiatives in material simplification for better recycling efficiencies. Another interesting technology to watch out for would be aerobic biodegradable material which biodegrades in litter condition without the need for an industrial composter or a bio-gas collecting infrastructure. This technology will take away consumer and brand worries of uncollected plastic trash from the land.
Going the ‘local global’ route
Covid has also led to an understanding that global supply chains can come under great pressure and risk when pandemics like this break out. The world is much more local than we believe it to be. Ultimately, a local manufacturer will give you a greater advantage than someone sitting across an ocean that cannot supply you in a time of crisis.
This pandemic will show that a “local global” presence is more important that a “global local” presence.
The world will forever remember this pandemic, but eventually things will return back to a certain kind of normal and we will move to a certain aftermath of this pandemic, and the lessons we will apply will be the same lessons that we apply from other lessons learned throughout our lives. We will apply a greater understanding of increased patience, increased caution, and furthermore, a greater understanding that, to be victorious the next time we are faced with a challenge, the best thing we need to do is to be more prepared. And that means to have every solution, including our sustainable solutions, prepared much more in advance of when we need them.
Ending with a Latin quote, “Mamt Victoria Curam,” which means, "Victory loves preparation."