Most of us have already been influenced by the outbreak of coronavirus. For example, I have locked myself home. My gratitude is with the people who keep our society moving like doctors, nurses, cleaners, teachers, shopkeepers, food producers and even packaging producers to name a few. I really appreciate your efforts in keeping our society functional, people alive and making sure that there is packed healthy food in every fridge and cupboard.

In these exceptional circumstances, I saw an opportunity to write about the importance of the modern food packaging and what is expected to happen with the packaging during and after the corona outbreak. During the first few months of the epidemic, we have read about people hoarding toilet paper, filling their cupboards with canned food and pasta, stocking up with hand disinfectant and freezing bread enough for month’s consumption – none of which would be possible without a good packaging.

In these exceptional circumstances, I saw an opportunity to write about what is expected to happen with packaging during and after the corona outbreak.

Suddenly the bake-off points and salad bars are closing, people reportedly avoid buying unpacked items such as bread, fruit and vegetables and hence food is moving more and more in packaged form. Even lunch restaurants and cafes need to reconsider how they serve the food safely without the risk of spreading the disease. The reason why this is happening is due to the most important function of the packaging – protection. Though I have to remind that many authorities have claimed that there is no clear evidence that corona virus would be transmitted through food or packaging, meaning that in many cases the worry might be unnecessary.

Protection – the most important function of packaging

Essentially the packaging is designed to protect the product from the outside world, or vice versa. With food, this means that the packaging keeps out the harmful germs or viruses and prolongs the shelf-life noticeably by for example keeping the moisture in or out, preventing oxygen making the product rancid or allowing the product to be sterilised inside the packaging.

For example, the ultimate survivor food, canned food, has been reported to stay microbiologically safe to eat for more than hundred years! Of course the nutrients and vitamins do not last this long, but anyhow this would not be possible without packaging. Therefore, if you feel the urge to hoard something, canned food is your ultimate option.

As protection is the most important packaging function, we cannot sacrifice it in the process of reducing and replacing packaging materials. For the past three years the industry have been vigorously seeking for alternative materials to plastic, as plastics have many negative features like potential to become littered, accumulation in the nature due to extremely slow degradation, CO2 release if made of fossil raw-materials and in many cases poor recyclability.

However, plastic materials have extremely good properties for the use in packaging: good sealability, barrier properties, durability, efficient packaging production, cost-efficient and lightweight. All properties making it safe, protective material for food packaging.

Even in the Package-Heroes project, where we seek for solutions to replace traditional plastic packaging to reduce the harmful effects related to them, we need to keep in mind and acknowledge the features of the plastic we need to reach with the alternatives. I recommend that all who develop, sell, or buy and use materials that are replacing plastic, would think how well the new packaging material protects the product compared to the previous solution, for example from biohazards.

Effects of coronavirus on packaging

I have been observing the packaging industry closely and have been in active discussion with different stakeholders. Here are few trends that I have found arising due to the coronavirus epidemic.

  1. It is very likely that the coronavirus effects the goals of reducing and replacing the consumption of plastic and other packaging materials at least in short term. Some countries have reported that the epidemic have affected the short-term availability of the packaging materials.
  2. As people are forced to take more social distance, it is expected that the e-commerce will increase and hence the demand for packaging increases. Once people get used to shopping online, they are more likely to do so also in the future. What is very noteworthy is that online shopping for groceries have increased extremely rapidly.
  3. As people are getting more cautious about how hygienic and safe products are for consumption, it is expected that the demand for packed products will increase at least in short term. It is unknown how long this behaviour will last.
  4. The situation forces people to buy more groceries at once when visiting the shop. People are more likely to buy products with longer shelf life. This is contrary to what the consumption have been moving so far with many people shopping every day small quantities. It remains unknown how many people will change their shopping routines permanently.
  5. There has been a growing interest towards re-usable packaging among companies and consumers before the coronavirus. It is crucial that the new business models, reverse logistics, washing operations, distribution and returning systems, self-dispensing systems, tracking etc. related to re-usable packaging are well established, tested and verified to work in such way that they do not work as accelerators for any disease outbreaks.

Having a working food distribution and self-sufficient food supply is crucial in a crisis like this. The existing system relies very much on food that has a long shelf life, which can only be achieved with properly working packaging.

Having a working food distribution and self-sufficient food supply is crucial in a crisis like this.

However, we need to be clever with the packaging solutions and every time we design packaging, we must choose the best overall solution considering all important aspects, such as sustainability, feasibility, scalability and safety.

However the products we buy are packaged, has an effect to the world where we live in and our job is to minimise the effect. This is essential in the Package-Heroes project too.