The true role of packaging comes to light in the midst of the COVID-19

In the haze of pandemic conversations swirling around everyone’s heads, one topic that has global significance is food security and integrity. The Australian Institute of Packaging (AIP) invited experts from different areas of the packaging industry to provide their views on the important role that packaging plays in times like these.

In part one of this two-part feature, Michael Dossor MAIP, group general manager, Result Group; Dr Carol Kilcullen-Lawrence, FAIP, CPP sustainability specialist, UPM Raflatac; Alan Adams MAIP, sustainability director APAC, Sealed Air; Professor Pierre Pienaar FAIP, CPP, education director – Australian Institute of Packaging (AIP) and president – World Packaging Organisation (WPO); and Keith Chessell FAIP, APCO board member all bring different views to this discussion on COVID-19 and how it will affect the packaging industry.

With the world turned upside down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are now realising that packaging plays an integral role in food safety. Do you think that this pandemic might help show packaging for its true purpose and perhaps even in a different light from recent times?

Michael Dossor: One hundred per cent it will, particularly in fresh produce. Although a lot of information about unpackaged produce – fruit and vegetables specifically – has been published and research has shown it not to be impacted, a consumer being faced with a choice of packed or unpacked is subconsciously selecting packaged products. The responsibility we have as an industry is to ensure we are still doing all we can to make sure this packaging fits with APCO goals for a circular economy. There are many ways to develop packaging in this space that can go to kerbside collection. I hope as an industry, we use this time to keep that a primary focus. The industry, brand owners and major retailers have an even greater responsibility right now.

Carol Kilcullen-Lawrence: The essential aspect of food packaging is really in the spotlight – shoppers are seeking to ensure that the food they purchase is less likely to have come into contact with COVID-19 and a protective layer of packaging is now desirable compared to loose produce that has been handled. While I believe this shift of focus from so called “excessive packaging” to “essential packaging” is understandable, we should not lose sight of the opportunity to engage with the consumer and the instructions supplied by the Australasian Recycling Label are doing just that.

Alan Adams: Yes, safety and availability are now primary concerns which is a different focus on packaging from a consumer’s perspective than of late. With COVID we believe that most consumers are looking at the retail shopping experience with a new focus on food safety. Contamination, handling in store, protection during transit and the unwrapping, safety of products arriving at home are all now being considered when in the past many consumers took these for granted. These concerns previously did not form part of the decision-making process for so many. Hermetically sealed packaging is now extremely attractive, plastics that enables us to see products but protects them from contamination are now attractive. The safety of reusable containers and bags is now in question. Placing the onus on cleanliness and eliminating contamination in the hands of consumers will deliver varying levels of safety. Efficient and effective packaging delivering products safely – the primary role of packaging – is back in focus.

Pierre Pienaar: Indeed, we have been turned upside down. I await with interest to see how the impact of the pandemic will change or influence the food buying habits of consumers. Consumers’ needs have always driven the look of food packaging. The battle in the immediate future will be between extended shelf-life items and fresh produce; with fresh produce perceived as proving a threat to the consumers’ health. Yes, consumers will expect safe food packaging. Whether their attitude towards the status of packaging being the “bad boy” changes or now, I am not convinced. I am hoping the pandemic, as well as ongoing education, will bring about a greater sense of responsibility within consumers for their own actions. In many countries around the world, and probably more in developed countries, we are seeing an uptake in meal kit subscription and home delivery services. Some countries tell me this service is busier than ever; leading to increased employment opportunities and greater demand for packaging that can cope with such a service.

Keith Chessell: Consumers have certainly become very aware during the COVID pandemic of the range of health issues around hand washing, cleaning surfaces and close contact with people. This awareness has changed consumers thinking about their view of packaging and especially the plastics packaging, especially when it comes to food purchasing decisions. Everyday COVID requirement changes have accelerated this understanding, like reusable coffee cups reverting to single-use cups, single-use bags replacing reusable shopping bags and the enormous quantity of single-use items of gloves, masks, clothing that are used once and then disposed (where and how hasn’t been disclosed by the authorities). Although I am sure consumers understand the important role that packaging plays in protecting and preserving the freshness of the food products from the farm, through manufacturing/processing plants, to the store and to kitchen cupboard/refrigerator, the environment concerns have been pushing that understanding into the back of the minds. Will this changed attitude revert when we return to “normal” or “new normal”? I believe this will very much depend on ensuring future packaging design assists the consumer to recognise the protecting and preserving benefits and also assist them to know there are recycling, reuse options that will reduce and hopefully eliminate packaging ending up in the rubbish bin.

How important is the role that packaging plays in food safety and food integrity?
Dossor: Packaging plays a massive role; not only in food safety and food integrity, but more so in food waste. Consumers are looking to minimise their trips to retail outlets for obvious reasons. Giving them a package that enables both food safety and integrity, as well as functions like reseal or reclose with tamper evidence and less plastic, is where we at Result are focusing our energies. These style solutions are available right now, they don’t require large capital investment and tick all these boxes – as well as fit within APCO guidelines.

Kilcullen-Lawrence: Packaging plays a hugely important role in food safety and integrity. In the current climate however, I am still cautious about the virus potentially being on the surface of the packaging, particularly as it has been shown that it can survive for several days on non-porous surfaces. I have been combating this risk in a number of ways, including discarding some outer packaging layers before putting food in the pantry or fridge.

Adams: Vital. Packaging is the vehicle that ensures the consumer receives the product in the manner in which the producer intended. The core function of packaging is to protect and preserve product and to prevent damage of all types – including physical, contamination or interference. Packaging also plays a key role in authenticity. Take vacuum packaged meat as an example; the packaging is vital to ensure the safe and quality eating experience is delivered. Products like Darfresh vacuum packaging seals the meat in with intimate contact delivering extended shelf life by as much as 28 days, prevents any contamination and still allows the customer to “feel” and see the meat.

Pienaar: It would appear that Covid-19 will be directly affecting each of us positively or negatively, or both, for at least the next six to 12 months, if not much longer. What we may need to focus on is the packaging of fresh foods for supermarkets. Consumers will become sceptical about any food not wrapped, especially foods where the skin is usually consumed, such as fruit and vegetables. Packaging remains integral in the delivery of safe food. The so-called “Farmers Market” concept may suffer somewhat, initially, until they too take on board the safety element that packaging offers the consumer. Our challenge will be to strike the balance between possible additional packaging requirements in response to the impact of the pandemic while still considering the sustainable, demands from the same consumer.

Chessell: As mentioned previously, packaging has a critical role in protecting and preserving the quality, freshness of the food products from the farm through every stage to the consumer. But packaging is also recognised today for the important benefits it provides of extending shelf life, reducing food spoilage and waste. It provides important information on ingredient, nutritional, storage and recipes, as well as the convenience (portion control, easy opening, ready meals) that consumers are now requiring.

The packaging industry is playing such an important role at the moment during this pandemic. What changes are you seeing to the industry? Are you seeing shortage in materials and packaging? What else can be done to help the industry at this moment?
Dossor: Short answers is yes, increased volumes at a retail level with classic food service products being in such massive demand based on isolation closures. Having partners companies in Germany, Spain, UK and North America, Result Group is keeping close to see the trends it is facing. Typically, what is happening overseas is also happening in Australia. Lead times are being pushed out, as order in volumes are upwards of 200 per cent. Our challenge is to maintain supply of products with increased volumes for all retail based FMCG on the up. Result’s approach has been to increase our volume holding as quickly as possible to ensure we support our customers. We cannot let customers down and that has meant additional investment in stock which is critical to the success of the current state of our supply chains in Australia.

Kilcullen-Lawrence: The importance of securing supply chains is critical as we navigate through the increased demand for packaging. Packaging that is manufactured in Australia has been desirable, to ramp up production to keep supermarket shelves topped up. I am noticing that panic buying is still a problem for some food lines.

Adams: The big impacts are staff safety and site security along with managing surge demand. Security of supply has risen sharply as a key concern up and down the supply chain. Having Australian production sites and international operations Sealed Air has managed very well keeping up supply even when demand for some lines jumped by more than 200 per cent. We have implemented a “Fortress mentality” at our production sites. We have put in place a range of measures to protect our staff and sites and there is a strong feeling of sense of duty to support the food and e-commerce industries who rely on us. There is a great feeling throughout the whole supply chain that we pull together in this time of crisis.

Pienaar: More than ever, packaging is playing an important role in the industry. Across the world, I am being told that all the essential related aspects of industry are busier than ever, packaging being one. Both in flexible and rigid plastics, factories are running 24/7 producing packaging components of some sort. One factory in India told me that they have no capacity for any development work as all hands are on deck producing around the clock. At this stage, customers of the converting industry can help by not placing orders for non-essential goods, until they can get on top of the demand. We, the end customer, need to understand and accept the status for now.

Chessell: It has been amazing to see the innovation and initiatives that many companies have undertaken to change production facilities to meet the additional medical and cleansing demands required to meet COVID requirements. Materials and packaging shortages have been initially impacted due to panic buying. It has been impressive to see the rapid response by producers and manufacturers to rapidly respond to this demand. Manufacturers and producers who are sourcing the packaging raw materials from overseas, have been immediately impacted by China’s shutdown and then the flow on to countries around the world plus the closing down of most international transport arrangements.

The federal and state government support of our manufacturing industry has been an important step in keeping industry working and enabling the restarting of those impact industries after COVID. This includes the support programs via the JobKeeper Payment, assistance with energy bills, mandatory code of conduct for commercial tenancies to support small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and International Freight Assistance Mechanism.