How has Covid-19 affected the packaging/plastic industry and what does the future sustainability agenda look like?
The British Plastics Federation shares their experiences and thoughts on how the Coronavirus pandemic has affected the plastics packaging industry and what the impact will be for the sustainability agenda.
In light of Covid-19 the plastics packaging industry is continuing to play a key role in responding to the crisis. Plastic packaging plays an essential role to protect products along the supply chain to ensure product safety and the minimisation of food and product wastage. Whilst plastic packaging continues to perform this vital role, it does so with the minimum use of resource.
The Coronavirus crisis has led to sharp declines in packaging for the hospitality sector as the country swiftly entered a lockdown. Whilst simultaneously there was accelerated growth in demand for medical, food, drink and hygiene packaging as supermarkets were overwhelmed with panic buying. The uplift in retail sales was only evident for a number of weeks in March with sales volumes up by a maximum of 50%, as consumers stocked up on essential food and personal hygiene items. Simultaneously consumers purchased fewer luxury items and large parts of the manufacturing industry shut down. This resulted in lower sales of plastic packaging for the building, automotive, hospitality and general manufacturing sectors.
Covid-19 impacted the plastics recycling sector due to the lower volumes of waste collected from households and businesses. The reduction of household waste collected occurred due to the closure of household waste recycling centres UK wide, and the suspension by a few councils of their kerbside collection’s services. Although councils quickly restored full household collection services, collections from businesses have remained subdued. Collections from the commercial and industrial sector remain at lower than average levels as these businesses continue to operate at a reduced capacity.
The plastic packaging sector was provided with key worker status to ensure that the essential supply of food, drink, medical and hygiene products could reach the consumer throughout the crisis.
In such an unprecedented time, UK packaging manufacturers have worked tirelessly to diversify their supply chains and operations to provide essential PPE to frontline medical staff within the NHS, care sector, government, and businesses. Whilst under significant pressure, the industry had the drive to produce essential products at breakneck speed. This was due to the shortage of supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) previously sourced from China. Some companies donated supplies to the NHS and care sector, despite pressures on their own businesses to help in the fight against Covid-19.
The BPF has so far dealt with over one-hundred enquiries about the supply of materials and equipment for critical medical supplies and PPE from a huge range of organisations, including the UK Government, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government, the NHS, care sector, and health providers across the country. The plastics industry has in record time managed to manufacture much-needed aprons, face masks, clinical waste sacks, ventilator parts, visors, much-needed hand sanitiser, bottles, caps and other key supplies.
The BPF has launched an online portal to help organisations across the UK locate suppliers in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Companies who provide products vital to the UK’s response to COVID-19 are listed in one place, this can be found at www.bpf.co.uk/cv19#
As we start to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis there are likely to be some long-lasting changes in demand patterns as government ease lockdown measures. Despite the hospitality sector now starting to re-open, demand is not expected to return to pre-Covid 19 levels for some time. This is due to the likelihood of increased remote working becoming the new norm. Already some on the go retailers are starting to announce plans to reduce the number of outlets they operate. These changes in consumer purchase patterns have resulted in the downturn in consumption of single-use plastics. Other changes in demand patterns include increased sales purchases through e-commerce platforms.
Covid-19 is likely to result in other changes to the sustainability agenda as consumers adjust to the new norm with greater emphasis on climate change, clean air and healthy living. The plastics industry has been calling for reductions in climate change to be at the centre of all future legislation and believe that this is now more likely to occur. In addition, the industry would like to see further investment in treating waste plastics in the UK.
Finally, the industry continues to engage with government on future policy interventions that will help achieve a circular economy. These initiatives include a plastic packaging tax that encourages the use of recycled plastics where regulations and good environmental practice support this. A revision to producer responsibility obligations that will ensure the collection of all plastics for recycling and a lower climate change impact. Lastly, a deposit return scheme that is both proportionate, increases the collection of all beverage containers and results in a reduction in litter arising from on the go consumption.