31st March 2020

What effects is the coronavirus crisis having on the packaging industry?

The coronavirus pandemic is having a far-reaching impact on millions of people. The restriction of social contact to a minimum is changing not only people’s day-to-day work and mobility, but also life in society in a very significant way. Alexandra Dittrich, Senior PR and Corporate Communications Expert at ALPLA, spoke to Dr Manfred Tacker, Head of the Packaging and Resource Management Section at FH Campus Wien, about the impact that this situation will possibly have on the packaging industry.

Mr Tacker, many countries have introduced strict measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Instead of heading to a restaurant for an evening meal, we are cooking at home, and we are now enjoying that after-work drink on the couch, rather than at a bar. Many consumers are forgoing daily shopping and now go to the supermarket only once a week at most. Even if we disregard the panic buying, the situation is turning consumer behaviour very much on its head.

Yes, and it’s also reminding consumers of the important functions of packaging. Hygiene and items that will keep for a long time are especially important right now. We can say there will be some kind of trend reversal in the short term – where the retail sector had been eliminating packaging, it is now being reintroduced in order to protect food from contamination, make its safe transportation possible and guarantee optimum product shelf lives.

Supplies of clean drinking water are essentially secure throughout Europe, but this is not the case all over the world. What changes do you anticipate in the beverage market?

The reusable packaging systems in some countries are coming under pressure. People are buying more beverages and are stockpiling mineral water in particular. Reusable bottles are therefore circulating more slowly, so the pool systems lack the bottles that they would normally be refilling. In Germany, companies are already encouraging the consumers to return empty bottles. With single-use bottles, you can respond to fluctuations in demand more quickly and can cover the needs in exceptional circumstances more flexibly.

Dr Manfred Tacker, Head of the Packaging and Resource Management Section at FH Campus Wien (Photo credit: FH Campus Wien/Schedl)

Will the consequences of the crisis perhaps even have an impact on the packaging debate by taking the wind out of this top topic’s sails?

I believe the trend in the direction of sustainable packaging is solid – not even the current crisis will be able to turn this around. But consumers are now seeing hygiene, which was previously not so pressing, as a major asset. And hygiene is precisely what packaging makes possible – something which certain types of packaging could certainly benefit from.

Are there areas in which you anticipate long-term effects too?

I think there is most likely to be a rethink in the long term in the areas of the value chain and delivery reliability. Governments and businesses will increasingly look at how supply chains can be made more resilient to crises. Who could have imagined closed borders across the European Union just a few weeks ago? This speaks in favour of local production and regional partnerships.

It is here in particular that a functioning circular economy can play its part. If valuable materials can be kept within the cycle and used packaging can be recycled and processed into new packaging, this would reduce our dependence on deliveries of materials from around the world. When this works well at the regional level, you have better control of the supply of resources and are not solely reliant on imported virgin material, for example. As we know, this already works with PET – enclosed cycles are easy to realise with the technologies already available. If this argument of an easily recyclable material could be combined with the environmental benefits of a packaging solution as is the case with PET bottles, this could constitute an attractive overall package in the future.

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