Plastic packaging still confronting sustainability challenges

Plastic packaging still confronting…

The coronavirus has only helped to underscore the importance of plastic packaging when it comes to keeping food contamination-free and to preserving its freshness and usability for longer. This is particularly vital now, given how millions of people worldwide are sheltering in place, and doing their best to make their provisions stretch.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated another trend that has a major impact on product packaging -- e-commerce. Online shopping already was showing strong growth, but the current stay-at-home phenomenon has only increased demand. An even broader awakening to the convenience of delivery to your doorstep may forever reshape parts of the retail sector.

An April 4 story by DigitalCommerce360 cites data to underscore the current trends.

In North America, it reported, the number of online orders for web-only online retailers soared 52% year-over-year in the United States and Canada for the period of March 22 through April 4, according to an online tracker from marketing platform Emarsys and analytics platform GoodData. Revenue for web-only retailers in the U.S. and Canada was up 30% year-over-year for the period. 

In the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region during the same two-week period, year-over-year transactions for web-only retailers grew by 23%, according to Emarsys/GoodData. During the same period, year-over-year revenue was up 19% in the region.

E-commerce growing sharply

Virus or not, retail e-commerce is rising sharply. New York-based consumer research firm Statista Inc. said that U.S. online retail sales of physical goods amounted to $365.2 billion in 2019, and projects that will rise to nearly $600 billion in 2024.

Consider also that China’s annual, 24-hour online shopping spree known as Single’s Day -- last held on Nov. 11, 2019 -- generated record sales estimated at some $38 billion.

The darker side of such a sales boom relates to the impact on the environment of so much product packaging. China’s State Post Bureau reported that e-commerce giants delivered 1.88 billion packages from Nov. 11 to Nov. 16 last year, an annual increase of almost 26%. Greenpeace estimated that the waste generated exceeded 250,000 tonnes.

The volume of packaging material used by China's e-commerce and express delivery sectors hit 9.4 million tonnes last year, and is on course to more than quadruple to 41.3 million tonnes by 2025 if they keep up the rate of increase, according to Greenpeace and other non-government bodies.

Sustainability still important

So, booming e-commerce offers sales growth for key sectors as well as greater convenience (and safety) now for many, but it clearly comes at a cost. While public health trumps sustainability concerns at the moment, it’s clear that the packaging sector cannot afford to take its collective eye off the ball when it comes to being eco-conscious.

As Dow Inc. CEO Jim Fitterling mentioned in ANTEC 2020 virtual conference on March 31: The COVID-19 crisis is going to end, "but the air we breathe, our water and the land we live on is here forever. And we can't afford to lose the momentum that we've started to gain already to safeguard the environment and help us move to a more circular economy."

Leaders in the European Union also are concerned that the current virus-driven economic slump will cause the focus on sustainability to wane, writing in a joint statement in mid-April, “We should withstand the temptations of short-term solutions in response to the present crisis that risk locking the EU in a fossil fuel economy for decades to come.” 

These conditions offer both extreme challenges and enormous opportunities for brand owners, consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies, and for those designing and manufacturing the packaging.