Over the past year, figures from across the value chain have argued that the role played by the packaging industry in society has never been more important, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of consumer protection.
As consumer concern around personal health has grown due to the pandemic, the industry has adapted and innovated to meet changing expectations around exactly how a pack can help its user to stay safe. In this article, we’ll look into some of the key innovations and developments from this field.
Hand sanitizer has now become a ubiquitous product in bags and on shop shelves across the world, and the task of dispensing it safely and efficiently has been taken up by our industry.
INEOS, the world’s largest producer of high-purity synthetic ethanol, launched a new range of touchless sanitizer dispensers for the home and workplace in December. Features for this new product include touchless dispensing sanitizer, variable dosage settings, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and lights to indicate low battery life and low cartridge levels.
Also, with human contact in mind, Lifestyle Packaging introduced Snappd – a unique single-use mechanism that dispenses a single dose of hand sanitizer gel when it is bent in half with one hand. The product currently has three different material formulations – compostable, bio-based using renewable sources, and recyclable.
Meanwhile, industry stalwarts like Smurfit Kappa have been busy adapting existing designs to suit this new reality. Its Bag-in-Box range, which had in the past been used to package and dispense boxed alcoholic beverages, has been extended so that it can now dispense sanitizer. The product is suitable both for end consumers and as a retail solution.
It comes as no surprise to learn that labelling companies have also been exceptionally busy at this time in the pursuit of keeping consumers safe. Torsten Scheermann, vice-president of global accounts at All4Labels, told us: “Generally, as disinfectants were selling out fast, labels were needed fast to supply the demand, and at the same time the raw material situation was extremely tough due to limited availability.
“Since without labels, disinfectants cannot be sold due to regulations, the label industry contributed to supplying that very high demand. By prioritizing disinfectant manufacturers and through thorough planning by our supply chain management, we were able to provide short lead times.”
Across the board, as with many packaging-related areas, Scheermann says that the demand for labels related to products used to fight the spread of COVID has increased significantly – this has been especially noticeable as All4Labels works with the key MNCs in the personal care business.
Beyond capacity and demand considerations, one other issue currently facing the labelling and marking industries in the realm of consumer protection is counterfeiting. Since the start of the pandemic, EUROPOL and EUPIO have been reporting a troubling uptick in cases of pharmaceutical counterfeiting – an issue with clear implications on the health of the consumer.
Indeed, some label producers have seen up to 20% increases in enquiries for brand protection and track and trace solutions since the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Unsurprisingly, the spread of the coronavirus also precipitated a rise in concern for personal health and wellbeing in a more general sense. As a result, a number of products were launched last year that sought to address this sentiment.
InvisiShield from Aptar is an anti-pathogenic packaging solution that can be integrated into sealed packages to protect fresh-cut produce from harmful pathogens like bacteria, fungi, and viruses. It is activated within sealed packages to release a specially formulated amount of an anti-pathogenic agent into the product’s packaging environment that is apparently undetectable to the consumer and dissipates from the package within 24-48 hours of activation.
As far as packaging surfaces themselves are concerned, more than half (57%) of consumers say that they now wash their hands thoroughly after touching e-commerce packaged products, while 30% throw packaging away more quickly. A new coating from DS Smith and Touchguard creates an anti-microbial surface finish that inhibits the growth of bacteria and certain types of viruses.
Meanwhile, the EU-funded REFUCOAT project announced in October 2020 that it was ending, after having successfully developed a coating based on bacteriophage organisms that reduces the proliferation of Salmonella bacteria in chicken breast samples packaged in a modified atmosphere.
Reusable and refillable packaging systems have been gaining momentum over the past few years, with some commentators describing them as the most viable long-term solution to the issue of packaging sustainability.
However, during the early weeks and months of the pandemic, stories emerged regarding the coronavirus being transmitted via surfaces and packaging, which raised questions about the safety of reusable packaging. Indeed, chains such as Starbucks went so far as to ban the use of reusable packaging in-store for a period of time.
These concerns prompted bodies like EuPC to urge the EU to postpone its Single-Use Plastic Directive, saying: “The EU Commission did not take into account the hygienic consequences of banning or reducing single-use plastics. We are, and will be, in a completely different world where hygiene and consumer health will be the number one priority for all of us.”
Now that the world has come to grips with many of the effects of the pandemic, bodies like the WHO and FDA have concluded that the chances of transmission via surfaces are low, especially given the existing rigorous cleaning and sterilization processes associated with reuse systems.
In light of these learnings, key retailers and brands now seem to be embracing reusable systems even more keenly than before. In 2020, British retailer Marks and Spencer expanded its grocery refill concept to more stores, and Carrefour became the first retailer to offer Loop’s reuse system in-store. Meanwhile, P&G Beauty announced the launch of its first refillable bottle system at scale, and Unilever launched its biggest refill and reuse trial in Europe.