Tom Newmaster is the founder of central Pennsylvania-based FORCEpkg. He has more than 25 years of experience in branding and design for consumer packaged goods. Newmaster serves as an adjunct instructor at Pennsylvania College of Art and Design.
In a recent Bloomberg article by Leslie Kaufman entitled “Plastics Had Been Falling Out of Favor. Then Came the Virus,” an interesting image sits at the top of the piece. It’s a grocery store display of apples (two per serving) covered in plastic wrap and sitting in plastic trays. In light of COVID-19, doesn’t it make more sense to have that plastic protection than to sell apples the traditional way, where shoppers pick them up by hand? If the virus is sitting on the plastic that you throw away, that just makes more sense than the risk of a live virus sitting on the skin of the fruit. Who wants to bite into an infected apple?
Pre-packed foods such as salad bowls, single-serve yogurt and fruit salads, and, yes, water bottles, are still in demand. Plastic is a convenience factor, but it’s also a safety factor. Single-serve alone works against cross-contamination: fewer people are handling a package and then disposing of it. We are seeing with our clients the discussion is more around health and safety than it is about impacts on the planet.
There is a time and place for everything, but we are in uncharted waters. Take-out containers and plastic bags are being used now in an effort to supply consumers and slow the spread of the virus. At this specific moment in our history, political correctness about how we dispose of plastic has to be balanced against the threat of the fast-spreading COVID-19. Killing all plastic is not the answer.
In the rage to recycle, we seem to have forgotten about what made plastics so popular in the first place. As the Bloomberg article points out, one reason plastic rose to universal dominance in so many industries is its protective qualities. Throwaway syringes were a historical godsend to medicine, not to mention the plastic surgical masks that we’re all wearing today. Even in the area of sustainability, plastic parts in automobiles reduced waste and improved fuel efficiency.
But in the food industry, there has been a nationwide move to encourage the use of reusables like grocery bags and coffee cups. However, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “War on Plastic Takes a Back Seat in Coronavirus Crisis, had this to say: “Starbucks, Dunkin’ Brands Group and Tim Hortons – owned by Restaurant Brands International, Inc. – have all stopped filling customers’ reusable cups, a U-turn after years of encouraging them.”
The piece went on to say about COVID-19, “ ‘When something is as transmissible as this you want to minimize all possibilities,’ said Jonathan Abraham, an assistant professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School. ‘It’s better to be extra careful than assume it’s overkill.’”
My firm, FORCEpkg, is in the business of branding and packaging design. It’s our job to create the most sustainable and cost-effective packaging solutions for the brands we serve. Plastic is one of the instruments in our toolbox. Brands have a lot to consider, such as product protection, child resistance, ability to communicate with the consumer and recyclability. In that area, plastic has made strides — but human nature hasn’t really kept up.
I run a design agency populated in large part by millennials and am the parent to millennial and Gen Z kids. I also teach packaging design at a college. So, I am a witness to recycling on a personal and a professional level. Here’s what I see:
When I ask my packaging classes how much “recycled” and “recyclable” matter to them, I get a mixed response. Certainly, the number of those who say it does is increasing, but it’s nowhere near a majority. (And when I observe their own behaviors in disposing their trash, let’s just say “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”)
I’m the recycling cop in my house, and I’ve been separating the eight materials recycled at my local center for more than 10 years. It actually cuts down on what I put out for trash by almost half. The millennials/ Gen Zers in my household make fun of the old man’s habits, teasing me about my hippie ways. (To which I retort, “Who are you calling a hippie? Hippies are boomers. I’m Gen X!”)
When I go to my local recycling center, I never see anyone under 40. I’m not sure if this is the same everywhere, but it speaks to a general reluctance to share the responsibilities entailed in sustainability practices and the recycling process in general.
All of my complaints don’t mean to suggest that people are lazy or uncaring. Rather, convenience is a way of life for most consumers. The difficulty that many find when it comes to recycling plastic is that behavior has more to do with convenience than it does with conscience. Nobody wants to be the person responsible for the straw stuck up the nose of the sea turtle. But when it comes to everyday habits, it’s not the sea turtle most people are thinking about.
A recent article in Ad Age focuses on brands that are thriving during the COVID-19 outbreak. Among those showcased are Lysol, Clorox, Purell, Scotch-Brite and the iconic Campbell Soup. All have been on the receiving end of criticism from the environmental movement, but during the current pandemic, safety is winning out over other concerns.
On the flipside, we can’t discount those nation-size floating islands of plastic. How did all that accumulate? Did the plastic packaging throw itself into the sea? No. Human behavior is the culprit. So, is it the plastic or is it our behavior that needs to change?
I live in this country, so my opinions are mostly based on what we do as Americans. We’ve simply got to get better at the recycling process and find ways to address the human error component. Maybe COVID-19 is the pause we are forced to take in order to re-examine the impacts we have on our environment and on each other.