Focus on Sustainability Slips During Pandemic

But researchers are still working on plans to replace plastics.

May 29, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—The pandemic arrived at a time when consumers were shifting away from plastic, demanding alternatives or giving up products like plastic straws. In spite of COVID-19’s impact on the focus of commerce safety, the consumer momentum for sustainability has not disappeared, reports the New York Times.

Though the current pandemic has halted years of efforts to get Americans to bring their own totes to the grocery store instead of relying on one-use plastic bags, with even cities and states with plastic-bag bans delaying enforcement for the time being, founders of several plastic-alternative companies said they’re seeing more interest from consumers in single-use plastics and commitment from some of the larger companies they work with to press on.

“We’re fortunate enough that we aren’t seeing anyone say, ‘I’m not worried about sustainability, I’m just going to focus on survival right now,’” said Troy Swope, co-founder and chief executive of Footprint, a company that produces fiber-based alternatives to single-use plastics. “If anything, we’ve seen an acceleration,” he told the New York Times.

Swope said that his product, which supplied foodservice items at this year’s Super Bowl, is different from other fiber-based alternatives. It has a shelf life that is comparable to that of plastic (which helps prevent additional food waste), is completely biodegradability and compostable, and can be microwaved, unlike plastic.

Another company developing a plastic alternative is Notpla, which uses natural materials to create a plastic pouch it calls Ooho. The size of a detergent pod, Ooho is made from seaweed and other plants. It is edible and biodegrades in four to six weeks. It is the ideal replacement for single-serving condiment packets, said Pierre Paslier, the company’s co-founder and co-chief executive, formerly in package development for L’Oréal.

Last year, Notpla partnered with Lucozade, a sports drink, to hand out capsules at an aid station at the London Marathon instead of single-use cups. Notpla also has created a pouch for dry goods and a liner for cardboard food containers, which are often sealed with plastic and can’t be easily recycled or composted.

Zuleyka Strasner was inspired to found Zero Shop, a single-use, plastic-free online grocery store. Like the old-fashioned milkman model “with supercharged technology,” Zero Shop drops off groceries in reusable containers, mostly glass and silicone, which are then washed by customers and picked up on the next delivery. The company currently only serves the Bay Area but plans to expand. It offers about 400 items ranging from fresh produce and meat to chips and popcorn.

Ecovative Design uses mushroom tissue (mycelium) to create a packaging alternative. The company grows packaging by filling custom-shape molds with mycelium cells and agricultural residues like wood chips, which act as a food source. The mycelium feeds on the wood chips, growing its fibers around and through the food source, and, in four to six days, takes on the shape of the mold, which is then removed. Ecovative licenses its technologies to other companies, which then grow their own mushroom packaging or leather.

For more on sustainable packaging options and how convenience retailers are balancing safety with sustainability concerns, read “Sustainable and Safe” in the June issue of NACS Magazine.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.