At the start of 2020, both Tesco and Waitrose announced that their own-brand products and tinned foods would no longer use plastic wrapping. The announcement was part of a growing trend to move away from plastic packaging.
However, since Covid-19, there has been a reversal in this trend. Manufacturers are struggling to move away from plastic packaging to eco-friendly alternatives during these unprecedented times. Going back to plastic The UK has imported 120,000 extra tonnes of plastic in the last ten weeks due to the ongoing Covid-19 health crisis.
This plastic came in the form of soaps, sanitisers, bottles and wipes. All these supplies have been necessary to ensure the safety of millions of people. This plastic reversal is indicative of the difficulties of going eco-friendly for many manufacturers, especially during challenging situations like the one our society is facing today.
Why do we use plastic packaging? Plastic packaging is frequently used because it’s cheap, robust and flexible in its uses.
Mick Clark, Sales Director of contract packing specialists WePack, explains why Polythene PE, a plastic wrapping, is one of the most popular materials: “It can be made more flexible or rigid according to the pack style that you want. You can order it low or high density, low slip, high slip, which means that they put additives into the PE that allow it to work better for different applications. PE is a very useable film.”
The cost-effectiveness of plastic is particularly desirable for manufacturers during economic difficulties, like the one we are facing during (and after) this health crisis. Companies will be looking to reduce spending where they can, including packaging materials. Plastic is a versatile packaging solution.
The leading hurdle manufacturers face is finding an alternative material that is as adaptable as plastic. An eco-friendly alternative might offer a packaging solution for one type of product but not the other. Plastic can be used with most products from food packaging to homeware.
The best eco-friendly packaging? Eco-friendly alternatives need to match plastic in costs, durability and adaptability: “If the idea is to get away from plastic completely, then the ultimate alternative would be card. The best type of card to use will need to be decided. It’s got to be strong, workable and printable.”
Cardboard offers low costs and decent adaptability. However, it falters when it comes to durability: “Using a cardboard sleeve has been done before. But the trouble is that they can look scruffy if they get damp, unlike plastic, or if another product leaks on it, cardboard looks awful if it gets marked, it can’t be wiped clean. It is immediately wrecked. It tears easily.”
The future of packaging
The Covid-19 crisis has inevitably slowed down drastic changes in packaging, but it doesn't mean it has completely stopped the process. Cardboard offers most of the benefits of plastic meaning that it can be used for specific products. However, it may require consumers to change their purchasing habits:
"Consumers will adapt and flex to the movement. They know it's for the good of the world. I don't think there are many people out there that will stop buying beans because they aren't in a plastic wrap. You take what's on the shelf."
Plastic is a vital material for packaging and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s cost-effectiveness, versatility and durability are hard to beat. Alternative solutions are being introduced, but it will be a gradual process. Eco-friendly packaging such as cardboard can provide solutions for individual requirements but not all:
“I think plastic is a vital and useful material that should always be used for packaging, even if it's reduced, until something can replace it. If something can effectively be packed in an alternative material that's great, but that's not always viable. I don't know if it will ever cease, not for a long time at least."