Commentary by Mara Hancker, Managing Director of IK Industrievereinigung Kunststoffverpackungen (German Association for Plastics Packaging and Films)
Until a few weeks ago anyone hearing the words “plastic packaging” often thought of waste first. Plastic packaging had to be combatted, and anyone who used it should be ashamed of themselves.
Virtually no one wanted to hear about the ecological benefits, facts were frighteningly irrelevant to many discussions and the populist “plastic-free” demand drowned out many factual arguments.
Then came the coronavirus and triggered worldwide changes in almost all areas of life. Interpersonal contacts are reduced to a minimum, daily routines are changing massively as are consumer habits. Security of supply, which was previously taken for granted, is suddenly a topic that is of concern to people alongside all the health issues. And this is also changing the perception of packaging.
Plastic packaging is indispensable
This does not mean that all criticism has been silenced or that problems have disappeared – marine littering, resource conservation and waste collection remain important issues worldwide – but the view of packaging is opening up.
Its actual function is coming more into focus again. Reliable supply chains, stockpiling, hygienic food protection, safe drug packaging, dosage aids, information… all this suddenly emerges from the shadows, from the blind spot of an often ideological discussion about plastics.
Packages are not produced as waste. Their primary tasks are product and consumer protection. Packaging is therefore system relevant – in times of crisis as well as before and after.
And whether declared plastic opponents like it or not: plastic can do many things that other materials simply cannot do. Plastic packaging protects against moisture, keeps oxygen out, is highly flexible to adapt to the packaged products, is many times lighter than cardboard or glass, and causes comparatively fewer CO2 emissions.
The crisis as an opportunity for constructive debate and less populism
In exceptional situations like the current one, perspectives, perceptions and attitudes change. Once again it has been shown that exhaustive information is indispensable for making target-oriented decisions. Populism, sweeping arguments and black and white pictures lead here to dead ends.
And this also applies to the way we handle packaging. By way of example, multi-use is not always better than single-use and we can be glad that we have the choice. PET bottles have an excellent carbon footprint and are an important mainstay of supply, especially in the face of increased demand.
Critics may now say that the industry is just exploiting a good opportunity. The industry’s answer to this is very clear: “Yes, we are”. This is because we see a huge opportunity for a discussion about our products that is finally differentiated – away from populist demands for bans and towards sustainable decisions for more climate protection with plastics.
As much packaging as necessary, as little as possible. Security of supply, participation in society, access to safe food, ecological packaging design, use of recycled materials and avoidance of unnecessary packaging – whatever the material – these are the challenges of our time.
We are responding to these challenges – currently with a stronger focus on the systemically relevant aspects, but also with responsibility for the many additional issues in the period that will follow. Climate protection needs plastics. Supply, product and consumer protection require packaging. Facts count. People now increasingly appreciate all of this again. Hopefully they’ll remember that when the crisis is over.”
Below you will find some selected cases on the role of plastics and our industry in the current crisis:
Plastics in the Corona Crisis
The epidemic triggered by the coronavirus is affecting us all. We feel its effects when we spend the working day in our home office, when we stand in front of partially empty shelves while shopping or when politicians have to ban public meetings in groups to slow down the spread of the disease.
After calls to forgo general packaging completely and campaigns against plastic packaging, however, the importance of packaging for product safety, shelf life, hygiene and consumer protection is once again becoming clear.
Packaging is indispensable for the security of supply of food and drugs. In some countries, packaging is already classified as system-critical because without it – especially in emergency situations – the supply of food, medical equipment and other important goods cannot be guaranteed.
This is why the coronavirus is also having an impact on the plastics and plastics packaging industry.
Free hand disinfectant
BASF reacted extremely quickly and created the conditions at its site in Ludwigshafen to be able to produce medical disinfectants. BASF aims to provide hospitals in the Rhine-Neckar metropolitan region with free hand disinfectant. Other chemical companies have seized on this idea.
Other companies are redesigning products to provide help in times of corona, such as the “spitting protection against the coronavirus (COVID-19)”, which is now also in use at supermarket tills.
And, of course, the packaging industry also feels the effects in times of crisis. The report of the same name at www.neue-verpackung.de offers an overview of the losers in the industry, but also shows which companies are profiting from the situation.
For in times of crisis, it is the positive properties of plastic, such as hygiene or availability, that convince consumers; read about this in the Japan Times “Plastics had been falling out of favor. Then came the coronavirus”
The weakness of multi-use is the strength of single-use
Canteens and staff restaurants are switching from self-service to take-away solutions, delivery services are booming. The manufacturers of corresponding packaging solutions are already experiencing increasing demand”, as the article on www.packaging-360.com “Back to more packaging through corona?” points out.
Another reason is the changed shopping behaviour of the population towards instant soups, canned vegetables, pasta and noodles, canned fish and fruit in recent weeks, as a recent survey by journal Lebensmittel Zeitung (LZ) confirms.
Also noteworthy: at fast-food chains and bakeries, no more coffee may be filled into returnable cups that you bring with you. “No more coffee in your own cup: Starbucks, Backwerk and McDonald’s take steps.”. Once flu and the coronavirus have hopefully been overcome soon, reusable packaging will definitely be a good solution again.
Security of supply only with packaging
Packaging and thus also various plastic products must be classified as “system relevant”. Packaging and the recyclable material plastic are indispensable for supplying the population with safe food, protective equipment and drugs, for example, according to Industrieverband Kunststoffverpackung e.V. in a joint statement by 14 packaging associations and its own statement “Supply during the corona epidemic: Food and drugs need packaging“.