COVID-19 and packaged products: increasing food and plastic waste

By Hüseyin ERBAS

With the COVID-19 pandemic, shopping priorities of the consumer have also changed, like many things that have now changed in our daily life. While the price and quality were two of the biggest factors determining product preference before the pandemic, another factor came into play with the outbreak: the risk of becoming infected. While consumers prefer some products to help ward off COVID-19, they avoid other products that they think will increase the risk of getting sick.

One of the questions we asked participants in our project — to examine the changing shopping behavior of consumers amid COVID-19– was related to their changing shopping priorities. Most of the participants stated that they bought unpacked vegetables and fruits from the grocery store or market place before the pandemic, but they have started to prefer buying packaged products from the beginning of the pandemic. Although FAO states that just touching products is not sufficient to cause for disease, consumers approach this with suspicion. Consumers prefer packaged products to avoid COVID-19 due to the concern of being infected by unpackaged products that everyone touches. This preference of consumers may be a measure to avoid COVID-19 but it may cause bigger problems: food and plastic waste.

Food Waste:

’I prefer to buy vegetables and fruits in packages after corona, I think it is safer. However, the vegetables are sold in one-kilo packages and since I live alone, I cannot consume all of them and I throw away most of them’ (Elif, 32, Izmir/Turkey)

Plastic packaged vegetables and fruits sold in grocery stores are usually packaged as 1/2 -1 kg or 3-4 pieces. This may not be a problem for crowded families or people who consume a lot, but the amount of products that are packaged are more than what people living alone can consume. Since products such as vegetables and fruits will decay within a few days, people throw away the rest. Moreover, supermarket workers throw the whole package away, even if only one product inside the package is rotten, because the consumer gives up on buying it when a single product inside the package is rotten*.

Plastic Waste:

‘’If the price difference is not too much, I buy vegetables and fruits in packaging … but I feel uncomfortable…. because I think there will be a lot of plastic waste’’ Merve, 25, Lund/Sweden

Plastic waste, which has been reduced by various laws and practices in recent years (such as banning single-use plastic products and increasing the cost of plastic bags), has started to increase again for various reasons around COVID-19. Of course, medical waste, such as face masks, come at the head of these reasons but the increase in packaged products is another of these reasons. In April 2020, packaged product purchases increased by 22% compared to April 2019**. The increase in packaged products means an increase in the plastic we release into nature.

Not only in grocery stores but even in marketplaces, where a lot of shopping takes place in Turkish society, products have started to be sold in single-use plastic bags. If there are no packaged products here, or if the consumer is not allowed to pack the products themselves, the consumer chooses the grocery stores. ‘’I normally prefer to shop from the marketplaces but give up when I think everyone is touching the vegetables there’’ said Mehmet (69) from Turkey.

Suggestion for retailers and manufacturers:

If we predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will continue for an indefinite time, we can say that consumers will continue to prefer plastic packaged products. Moreover, the shopping behavior of consumers that has changed with COVID-19 may turn into a habit and continue after the pandemic. Producers and retailers will respond to this consumer demand by continuing to produce plastic packaged products. If the use of packaged products continues, we must produce solutions that will minimize both food waste and plastic waste. For this purpose, we recommend for retailers and producers a packaging that is smaller, consists of less plastic and utilizes more recyclable paper.

We may find a solution to COVID-19 in 1 or 2 years, but we will deal with plastic waste for a hundred years.

References

*Jakobsson, A. (2019). Ett dåligt äpple i paketet – då slängs sju friska: ”Säljer mer i flerpack”. AftonBladet: https://www.aftonbladet.se/matdryck/a/3J75oP/ett-daligt-apple-i-paketet–da-slangs-sju-friska-saljer-mer-i-flerp

** Roe, B.E., Bender, K. and Qi, D. (2020), The Impact of COVID‐19 on Consumer Food Waste. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy. https://doi.org/10.1002/aepp.13079

Huseyin Erbas is a Masters’s in Applied Cultural Analysis program student at Lund University. He conducted his research with a collaboration of Square Culture for one of his courses in the program. He researched the changing shopping habits of consumers with COVID-19 and the reasons behind them in both Turkey and Sweden. To get further information about his research, please email sahra@squareculture.se.