Are concerns about the transmission of COVID via reusable packaging justified – or have the risks been overstated? We spoke with John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director at Greenpeace USA, about why his organization and many others believe the latter is closer to the truth.
As it has with countless other aspects of modern society, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to put the breaks on the rise of one of the industry’s most promising emerging channels: reusable packaging models.
At the start of the pandemic, amidst a flurry of panic-driven and difficult-to-verify stories, news items began to emerge about the potential of the virus to be transmitted via surfaces – raising obvious questions about the safety of reuse models.
Since then, public health bodies such as the FDA and WHO have determined that the chances of transmission via surfaces are low – especially considering the rigorous sterilization processes that reuse systems undergo.
In light of this, Greenpeace, along with over 125 health experts from 19 countries, signed a statement assuring retailers and consumers that reusables are safe during COVID-19, pushing back on claims made by some parts of the plastics industry.
Here’s what John Hocevar had to tell us about this statement and its arguments on the effects that the virus has (or hasn’t) had on reuse:
FS: To give us some context, could you talk a bit about the state of the reuse market pre-COVID?
JH: Before COVID, we were seeing corporations form partnerships with reuse experts, and introduce pilots to start gauging customer interest. There was a proliferation of entrepreneurial start-ups, employing a range of approaches to meet most needs. Demand for reuse was growing, particularly among young people.
FS: Broadly speaking, what effect has COVID had on reuse models?
JH: COVID caused temporary delays in the expansion of reuse models. The biggest challenge was simply that retailers and other public-facing businesses had to prioritize keeping their employees and customers safe, and that took up a lot of time.
Additionally, some companies that had planned to introduce reuse programmes in 2020 put them on hold until there was more widespread understanding that single-use was not inherently safer than reuse. We are already seeing a resurgence in companies shifting toward reuse and refill to pick up where they left off before the pandemic.
FS: What steps are companies involved in reuse models taking to ensure that they are safe for consumers?
JH: Reuse models always had to be designed with safety in mind, so COVID hasn’t changed things too much in terms of what is required to keep people safe. That said, it has become more important to demonstrate to customers that these approaches are safe. This has favoured contact-free models, and led to the use of more visible explanations of the processes involved.
FS: There have been calls from some sectors to halt legislation regarding single-use packaging in light of COVID – what are your thoughts on this?
JH: Plastic industry associations worked hard to exploit people’s fears about COVID, and tried to convince policymakers and the general public that reusables were dirty and dangerous, and that single-use plastic was needed to keep us safe. This was not in line with the best available science, and distracted attention from where health experts said we needed to focus.
As understanding of how the virus spreads grew, things started to get back on track. Most pauses or delays of single-use plastic restrictions have since been reversed, and many new policies are now being introduced. As health experts all over the world have stated, it is clear that reusable systems can be used safely.
FS: For obvious reasons, e-commerce has become more prevalent while footfall in physical stores has been declining. How has this affected the reuse market?
JH: The growth in e-commerce has caused an accompanying surge in shipping waste, from boxes to plastic pouches and packing material. At the same time, it has created new opportunities for reuse. As more and more people grow uncomfortable with the amount of throwaway packaging piling up in their homes, they are looking to e-commerce for solutions.
There are now popular reuse options available for a wide range of products, and e-commerce makes it easy for people to find them even if they are not yet stocked in their local supermarket or drugstore.
FS: Looking forward, how do you think COVID-19 will change reuse in the long term?
JH: In the long-term, I think we will view the COVID pandemic as a significant but temporary delay in the inevitable shift away from throwaway packaging. It has also been an awakening for many people to the growing threat of single-use plastic packaging as more people were forced to use throwaway bags or carry out items that they otherwise have avoided for years.
FS: How can we scale up reuse models and make them more widespread?
JH: It is already happening, but we need to pick up the pace and think a bit bigger. So far, the leadership on reuse is coming from entrepreneurs. There are hundreds of companies featuring reuse models, and retailers and consumer goods and foodservice companies are starting to seek them out. As corporations begin to realize it will not be possible to satisfy customers by focusing on recycling, we expect investment in reuse systems to continue to grow.
In addition, policy can be a very powerful tool to help scale up reuse models, in part by developing infrastructure in support of reuse. Policy – including Extended Producer Responsibility approaches – can also play an important role in incentivizing reuse.