Packages Will Need to Evolve Faster and More Intelligently Due to the Coronavirus

By Edson Perin

If technologies for identification, tracking, authentication and improving the customer experience are necessary, other innovations are mandatory—such as eliminating viruses, for example.

What is known, amid so many doubts generated by the coronavirus pandemic, is that current packaging and distribution processes will need to evolve to new levels of health safety, in order to avoid the risks of contamination from viruses such as the cause of COVID-19. Recently, I had to visit a supermarket here in São Paulo, Brazil, after surviving two weeks of social isolation, and I realized that many technologies we already have available could increase health security; however, much remains to be done.

The replacement of supermarket shelves, for example, is still a completely manual process and carries risks of contamination by the coronavirus. How can we avoid this? First, the use of gloves and masks by employees would be recommended. However, this is not what is happening at the moment, which mean that every product purchased in stores must be disinfected when customers get home. So it took me 20 minutes at the supermarket to buy goods, but more than 60 minutes at home to clean everything before storing it.

In fact, according to less optimistic scenarios presented by scientists such as Atila Iamarino, a biologist and doctor of microbiology at the University of São Paulo and a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University—who was interviewed by the TV show Roda Viva, on TV Cultura, on Mar. 30—the use of gloves and masks should become indispensable for everyone, even once the pandemic is on a downward curve of new cases and deaths. In fact, he said, the use of these accessories could continue for many years.

Taken by surprise, retail merchandise distribution companies did not have time to prepare for the disease, and they could not imagine—nor did almost every other sector, including food, beverages, hygiene and cleaning products—that the harmful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic would become a nightmare in which we are all awake. As such, training employees in the midst of this scenario has become a herculean task, and there are doubts about what safety procedures should be followed.

Consider what could become one of the alternatives for packaging in the near future if the virus lasts for months or even years. Researchers at Canada's McMaster University are currently working to develop a self-cleaning surface that promises to repel bacteria in environments ranging from hospitals to kitchens. At first glance, of course, this would not be a viable solution for the coronavirus since that is a virus and not a bacterium, but it points in an interesting and promising direction.

The study material at McMaster University, which could prevent the proliferation of bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella, works by combining nanoscale engineering and surface chemistry. The surface is textured with microscopic wrinkles that exclude all external molecules, ranging from a drop of water or blood to even a living being like a bacterium.

I studied at Colégio Bandeirantes from 1982 to 1984 and took classes in biological sciences. Students in this program attended many universities and became doctors, dentists, geneticists, journalists, economists and lawyers. I remember lectures by Professor Ernest Birner, a biologist, who said: "Viruses are non-living beings. They are between minerals and living beings, so they cannot be killed. Necessarily, living beings need to develop their own defenses to eliminate viruses, which are parasites of living cells."

We have technology available now to meet our demands for cleaner and more controlled supply chains, and even less human interaction. Radio frequency identification (RFID) has already accumulated success stories in several sectors, reducing costs and increasing operational efficiencies. UHF RFID stands out especially for the fluidity of supply chains, in-store inventory control, goods identification and tracking, and automatic check-outs. We also have Near Field Communication (NFC) to guarantee readings by smartphones from retail store operators or consumers.

In addition, there are digital printing and the impressive experiences of augmented reality, among many other innovations. In addition to making consumers' eyes shine, these can support safer measures for everyone's health, helping us fight the spread of viruses—and microorganisms in general.

In Brazil, we created the first smart packaging development center in Latin America, known as Sincpress, which at this moment can play a great role as a provider of discussions, developments and solutions for the smart-packaging market and for all sectors. There's a lot of work ahead, but let's not be discouraged even for a minute. Health and peace to you all.

Edson Perin is editor of IoP Journal Brasil and the founder of Netpress Editora.