COVID-19 is changing how America bags, boxes and wraps its food.
Some changes may be temporary, while others will likely prove enduring. Food industry leaders say producers should pay attention to the packaging mega-trends to meet consumer demands.
Food packaging is a $900 billion worldwide industry, according to McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm.
Early in the pandemic, market researchers say short-term trends emerged.
Grocery stores' bulk food aisles went largely untouched.
Producers who shipped to restaurants needed new supply lines and retail containers.
The rush on plastic clamshells meant many went out of stock. Desperate producers sought alternatives; sales catapulted at some alternative packaging companies.
Linda Fritz, owner of Sun Sugar Farms in Verona, Ky., and founder of a compostable paperboard packaging line, said people have ordered hundreds of thousands more containers during COVID-19.
Ebhi Ortiz, general manager at Sumano's Organic Mushrooms in California, said his company started using Fritz's containers before COVID-19. When the virus disrupted supply lines, Ortiz said he was grateful for steady supplies.
"The boxes are a little more expensive than plastics, but not by much. It's worth it because they've boosted our sales and they're sustainable," he said.
But a bump toward sustainability was not the COVID-19 norm. Across the U.S., sustainability took a back seat while hygiene concerns moved forefront. Some state and local governments lifted bans on single-use plastic grocery bags. Bars and restaurants reverted to plastic cups, and many brands wrapped "loose" supermarket items, like fruit, in plastic.
But recent studies indicate the coronavirus might persist longer on plastics. In response, many places are bringing back bans and again encouraging reusable containers.
John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at environmental nonprofit Greenpeace, said he expects the decades-long move toward sustainability will override the shorter-term changes.
"I think COVID has been a disrupting blip rather than a transformative event for packaging styles and materials. I think a bigger driver would be the growing concern about single-use plastic," he said.
David Feber, partner at McKinsey & Co., agrees public concern for the environment remains strong.
"Sustainability is here to stay," said Feber.
But Feber says the crisis is more than a blip. He expects the four mega-trends coming out of COVID-19 will be sustainability, hygiene, e-commerce and personalization.
Consumers want sustainable packaging, he said.
"Metal, glass, paper and plastic: they all have their pluses and minuses," he said. "Some might be recyclable but take more energy to create. Others could have a higher carbon footprint but be perceived as better for the environment. There's no silver bullet."
Producers, he said, should focus on what sustainable goal they are trying to reach and work with a packaging company to convey that.
Feber said hygiene remains a top concern. Packages that showcase cleanliness perform better.
COVID-19 has also expanded e-commerce.
Prior to the pandemic, the grocery category was 3% of e-commerce. Now, it's 17%, including farm-to-consumer sales, and Feber estimates it will settle to 10% post-pandemic.
E-commerce packaging is complicated, he said. Companies must perform many tests to mitigate for squishing and dropping.
Feber said consumer preferences are also shifting toward personalization. At the height of COVID-19, consumers retreated to established brands, but the growing trend toward smaller, localized and personalized food packaging, he said, looms large.
America's producers, industry leaders say, should get ready for the packaging revolution.