Editor’s note: Tom Newmaster is founder and partner of branding and packaging design firm FORCEpkg, Myerstown, Pa. 

In a recent Bloomberg article by Leslie Kaufman, "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. It begs the question: In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, does it make more sense to have that plastic protection than to sell apples the traditional way? 

Pre-packed foods such as salad bowls, single-serve yogurt and fruit salads, and, yes, water bottles, are still in demand. Plastic has a convenience factor, but it’s now also seen as a safety factor. Single-serve alone works against cross-contamination (fewer people handling a package and then disposing of it). With our clients, the recent discussions around packaging are based more on health and safety than impacts on the planet. 

We are in unchartered 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 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 for the rise of plastic in so many industries was its protective qualities. Throwaway syringes were a historical godsend to medicine, not to mention the plastic surgical masks 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 service industry, there has been a nationwide move to encourage the use of reusables like grocery bags and coffee cups. How...