Trends

Covid-19 lockdown sees consumer demand shift from sustainable to single use, disposable packaging

Key points
  • The industry’s pivot to takeaway and home delivery meals has undone the shift towards sustainable packaging and brought plastic bags, cups and plastic-sealed utensils back to the forefront.
  • This shift to ‘safety first’ has equated to ‘sealed equals safe’ for foodservice customers.
  • As we come out of lockdown, there are signs that consumers may be set to return to their former focus on sustainability.
  • There’s been a rise in technology-enabled packaging which provides customers with greater protection – such as smart labels and QR codes.

THE NEED to pivot to takeaway and home delivery meals over the past few months has led many foodservice establishments to switch their packaging, making changes in response to consumer demand for greater disposability.

This has had the effect of undoing the shift towards sustainable packaging of recent years – with the return of plastic bags, cups and plastic-sealed utensils due to safety concerns around reusable products.

New laws designed to reduce the amount of plastic waste generated by the foodservice industry have been put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic – including New York City’s ban on Styrofoam containers for takeout food, and the UK’s planned ban on plastic straws, stirrers and bags.

While environmental sustainable packaging was a key focus prior to COVID-19, especially among the millennials who make up the majority of Australia’s foodservice customer base, once lockdown began there was a major shift towards ‘safety first’.

In the case of food packaging, this has equated to ‘sealed equals safe’: individual condiment packets instead of cups filled in-house; plastic containers with lids in preference to Styrofoam coffee cups; containers with tamper-proof lids; plastic bags rather than paper; and double bagged containers to ensure both hygiene and durability, especially for home delivery.

But with the country now coming out of lockdown, there are signs that consumers may be set to return to their former focus on sustainability. A consumer survey conducted by market research firm GlobalData in April found that 43 per cent of Australians are ‘seeking longterm solutions that also meet the sustainability agenda’.

Not surprisingly, GlobalData also notes there has been a rise in technology-enabled packaging which provides customers with greater protection – such as packaging with smart labels and QR codes which can be smartphone-scanned.

The edible food packaging market, which according to Transparency Market Research is expected to be worth $1.3 billion by the end of 2024 is also on the rise. It is already well established in Asia, where many packaging products are manufactured from seaweed, with others produced from potato starch and milk protein. Barilla is now even using pasta to make drinking straws!

One thing is certain – hygiene and safety, as opposed to sustainability, are set to be the most in-demand features for food packaging in the immediate future.