Part 2: Has Covid-19 disrupted the momentum for making packaging more sustainable?

Date : 21 May 2020

With businesses readying themselves to re-open in some form or other, pressure has been mounting on them to focus on adopting longer term green business strategies as well as short term economic stability. In part 1, we discussed the industry and shopper changes arising since Covid-19 alongside potential environmental concerns such as the increase in single use plastic such as carrier bags, increased packaging waste in the home and the halting of reusable drinks cups. In part 2 we review some of the positive action taken in response to Covid-19 and how we can capitalise on these going forward to enhance the sustainability of the packaging system. IGD is also reviewing whether the proposed actions following our in-depth consultations and Sustainable Packaging Systems workshop with over 70 attendees in February 2020 are still valid. 

Moving from unintended consequences to unintended benefits

The packaging world is known for talking about unintended consequences - mainly as a negative connotation, such as the sharp uptake of compostable and biodegradable packaging which have caused more problems to the circular economy system than intended. If you spin this principle on its head and look to find the unintended benefits (as a result of Covid-19), we can try to capitalise on these going forward – specifically to address making the packaging system more sustainable:

  1. Collective action can happen: And it can happen quickly. Our industry came together through the collective action of IGD to ensure there was a continued supply of essentials to food banks throughout the UK. “Some 40 companies have stepped forward, with more coming through every day…. It’s a fantastic example of our industry working together” states IGD CEO, Susan Barratt. Can we use this same approach to deliver a consistent approach to packaging?
  2. Effective collaboration between businesses and government: Both the deposit return scheme (DRS) and the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for packaging are due to progress this year. We need to ensure these policies are aligned and impactful by ensuring businesses are proactive in implementing circular economy practices. How can we continue to inform the Government effectively to make this ‘nudge’ in the system?
  3. Packaging plays an important role: With the demand for food, medicine and essential items being at an all-time high, suppliers of print and packaging raw materials and production facilities have been seen as essential businesses. It is a message that the industry has been wanting and now needs to ensure responsibility in its promotion – by embedding circularity at its heart. 

Going forward

We know businesses can come together quickly and effectively to make good things happen. We know consumer behaviours are changing with businesses having to adapt. And we know there is still a massive need to reduce packaging materials, reuse as much as possible and recycle what is left – with essential Government policy due to promote this. How can we apply these learnings in making packaging more sustainable taking into account the need to be agile and embrace all the changes going on around us?

Following IGD’s Sustainable Packaging Systems workshop held on the 26th of February, it was clear that the industry wants and needs a collective ambition that brings together the diverging packaging strategies, looking long term, that lowers carbon footprint whilst increases material circularity. Is this even more important given the uncertainties in the short term? 

Research into consumers behaviours on reuse was another output, but is the reuse agenda significantly delayed? Should the research now focus on the economics within a sustainable packaging system or on transparency of carbon impacts of packaging instead?

We’d really value your thoughts and feedback on these key questions and stimulate an ongoing industry debate. You can contact us on [email protected].

(Note the department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has announced that the introduction of its ban on plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers will be postponed until October 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic).