Perspective: Packaging, COVID and sustainability

Back in March, when Covid hit, orders at my company skyrocketed over 100 percent compared to the year earlier.

 

 

Back in March, when Covid hit, orders at my company skyrocketed over 100 percent compared to the year earlier. Panic buying I figured. Then every month that followed beat the prior year by at least 10 percent, mainly higher. I kept waiting for cancellations that never came.

Most of what Emerald Packaging, Inc. makes ends up in the grocery store produce section. Printed baby carrot and salad flexible packaging, iceberg lettuce and romaine heart bags. Consumers, no longer eating out, shopped to eat in. They bought packaged produce thinking it safer than unpackaged. And because it helped what they bought stay fresh longer.

Suddenly our Union City, Ca. company, like the plastics industry, no longer found itself a pariah. Especially pleasing since the previous months had been spent wrangling over language with the authors of California Senate Bill 54, which would ban flexible packaging by 2030 if it isn’t recycled.

My worries over sustainable packaging issues took a back seat to getting production out and protecting employees from Covid. But I knew, as did almost everyone in our industry, that sustainability would re-emerge from its hiding place. Even if the pandemic had created appreciation for single-use plastics, stakeholders still demanded solutions to its challenges.

Well, sustainability has come roaring back onto the agenda. If anyone doubts that legislators have forgotten, last week the sponsors of SB-54 began a campaign to get it passed before the close of the legislative session on August 31. They have a solid chance.

Meanwhile U.S. Senator Tom Udall and U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal announced they’ll introduce legislation this fall to reduce litter and increase recycling rates. We know it will involve fees on plastic manufacturers and a widening of material covered under container deposits to finance beefed up recycling.

The issues driving sustainability didn’t change during Covid. We still have landfill problem and marine debris, still have antiquated recycling systems and we still have litter. The virus itself worked against the industry in some ways, since thanks to consumers, plastics waste grew at an alarming rate.

So now what? I wish I had easy answers. I don’t. My mind reels around the issue as it has for many years. I do know, as I did before Covid arrived, that any solution must be scalable and affordable within reason. All roads still point towards recycling.

I would love compostable packaging to quickly make a major dent in conventional plastics — but it won’t. The production facilities needed aren’t even a gimlet-eyed dream, let alone real, and would take years to build with uncertainty about the financial return as packaging faces bans. Which means they won’t get financed, let alone built.

I’m not saying compostable material won’t play a role. More recent films lend themselves to robust packaging. Charter/Next have created a sheet that looks, feel and acts like regular polyethylene. NatureFlex has material in development that will compost faster than required under the ASTM D6400 standard, which will help match material to the faster turn rate of many industrial composts.

Pyrolysis would work if humanity didn’t need to reduce fossil fuel use, thanks to global warming. Scaling it would be very hard to do fast anyway. Waste-to-energy makes abundant sense but environmentalists oppose it, bans would still pass, and no one wants an oxidizer near their community.

Which leaves actual recycling, the onramp to the “circular economy”. This has its own challenges. Flexible packaging hasn’t been recycled by consumers in any appreciable way, current recycling systems can’t handle it, and the end-market for recycled materials hasn’t developed though post-consumer recycled resin, which we offer in some packaging, has already found a healthy niche.

Recycling remains the easiest solution to scale. The money could be scraped together in a nation-wide recycling program with proper funding and investment incentives. And consumers know how to recycle, most do it already.

It makes the most sense for the industry to put its chips on recycling. We should follow the lead of Oroville, Ca-based Roplast Industries and join the Association of Plastics Recyclers to get the conversation going. Only if we engage the recyclers will progress get made. Otherwise we’ll be dodging sons and daughters of SB-54 for years to come.

We don’t want to do that. No one has the time. What I can say, thanks to Covid, is that consumers have awoken to the benefits of plastics usefulness. We’ve made it possible for people to eat during a tragic time and helped cut food waste. We need to capitalize on this and make an aggressive case for our industry. And still work sustainability as well.

Kevin Kelly is the CEO of Emerald Packaging in Union City, Ca. He has been active in plastic political issues for over two decades.

 

 

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