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Why COVID-19 has restored plastic’s popularity in soft drinks – comment

23 Jul 2020

Before Covid-19 changed everything, “plastic” was little more than a dirty word that was only getting dirtier. Now, however, the packaging material could provide a neat solution to consumer unease over cleanliness. Lucy Britner explains. 

Among the panic-buying of food and drink that was brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, many consumers have – perhaps understandably – dialled down their concerns about plastic. Indeed, buying products that are individually wrapped and sealed away from the hands of staff and other shoppers has given people peace of mind.

The soft drinks category was among the first to recognise the role hygiene is set to play in consumers’ minds going forward. Last month, The Coca-Cola Co’s CFO, John Murphy, told analysts at Deutsche Bank’s Consumer Conference 2020 that touchless payment systems in the out-of-home channel have become a “big opportunity we need to tap into”.


The new follows PepsiCo’s unveilling of SodaStream Professional, which aims to replace water fountains with a carbonated flavoured water dispenser that connects to smartphones and tracks usage. Elsewhere, GlobalData has flagged a water dispenser start-up that is lining up the launch of an app-based touchless dispensing feature. The concept, developed by Bevi, can be accessed through a smartphone camera or QR code scanner and shows a replica of the machine’s touch screen on the user’s phone. The feature allows the user full control without having to make physical contact with the unit.

While the contactless element will appeal to hygiene-conscious consumers, the thought of other people using their own cups or bottle probably won’t. Just before the UK lockdown, for example, Starbucks brought in a temporary ban on a reusable cups to help tackle the spread of the virus.

Then, there’s the question of cleanliness. Once these machines leave the custody of the drinks companies, they are reliant on being looked after by external parties. Anyone who’s ever worked in hospitality will know that cleaning soft drinks dispensers can be a messy job. And, for all the guides and tutorials in the world, it’s also a job that occasionally gets overlooked.

While I’m a fan of reusable bottles and smart dispensers, for now, at least, our old, single-use friends should not be disregarded. Whether drinks are packaged in plastic, glass or cans, consumers under lockdown have become accustomed to sealed goods. As they emerge from lockdown, they’re likely to want to continue taking these precautions.

Reading across to alcohol and the ready-to-drink cocktail categories, business appears to be booming, with NPD being announced daily. While bottled or canned pre-mix cocktails will aid streamlined bar operations, they’ll also allow for a more hygienic serve by cutting down the number of touchpoints.

It makes sense, then that single-serve soft drinks will win with consumers, at least in the short term.


There is one type of dispenser that could really capitalise on the hygiene trend, as drinks companies look to the humble vending machine in the post-pandemic era. In Japan, Coca-Cola is installing anti-viral/anti-bacterial film on 30,000 vending machines in high-traffic public areas, such train stations and hospitals. The coating is applied to product selection buttons and dispensing slots on the machines, many of which can already accommodate multiple prepaid cashless card formats. “CokeOn” mobile app users can make touch-free purchases.

Over in Australia, Coca-Cola Amatil has overhauled its vending machines to accept cryptocurrency. The move, announced by the Coca-Cola bottler last month, addresses the “hygiene concerns we’ve all become acutely aware of due to Covid-19”.

While we navigate the coming months, concerns about plastic pollution may not be as apparent – they won’t go away, either. There’s a distinct possibility, then, that the new landscape will encourage more innovation in terms of alternatives to plastic or better recycling initiatives. We can expect to see more of the big soft drinks companies look to ramp up the level of recycled materials in their bottles, while more start-ups will come up with plastic alternatives.

Fairtrade plastics company Plastics For Change has cited Covid-19 as a chance for brands to “reset their recycling strategy”. Speaking to Reuters’ Ethical Corporation last week, the start-up’s CEO, Andrew Almack, said: Companies can help tackle poverty and pollution by sourcing plastic from the 15m informal waste workers who are the backbone of the recycling sector in emerging economies like India.”

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded many consumers just how useful plastic is. We all just need to get better at recycling it.

Lucy Britner, 7 July 2020




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