Coronavirus and plastics: Are we headed back towards single-use?

As the global economy struggles with the pressures of Covid-19, some industry groups are using the need for more protective equipment as a means to lobby for the removal of charges and bans on single-use plastics. edie explores why that cannot be allowed to happen.

Reports suggest that concerns around food hygiene due to Covid-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity

Reports suggest that concerns around food hygiene due to Covid-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity

The coronavirus outbreak has pushed the global economy into a state of delay. With the main priority rightly being the limitation of the spread of the virus, developed economies have adapted to become digital economies. The standstill this has created has led to global sporting events, music festivals and bespoke conferences all pushed back to later in the year, when it is hoped that mass gatherings will be allowed to take place.

Certain ways to limit the spread of the virus inadvertently appeal to the selling points of plastics. The world became engulfed in plastics due to its protective and hygienic qualities, its flexibility in application and how easy it is to dispose of (even if it is at a cost to the environment).

A knock-on effect of the virus has been the delay to key legislative introductions. Governments and businesses alike are developing contingency plans which have meant that the implementation of key green bills and strategies have been placed on the backburner.

Over the coming months, many states and nations were ready to implement bans on single-use plastics, or introduce new systems to collect plastics to ensure that they don’t leak into the natural environment.

Scotland’s Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham confirmed earlier this month that the rollout of a national deposit return system for plastic containers has had to be pushed back from an original start date of April 2020 to January 2021, to enable the government, businesses and society to focus on the coronavirus.

US lobbying

In the US, both New York and Maine have had to delay various bans and charges on single-use plastics, to April and January respectively. The delays are understandable but as political eyes turn their attentions away from single-use plastics, arguably the zeitgeist of the last two years, groups are emerging in an attempt to use the Covid-19 pandemic as a short-term economic boon for the derided material that is single-use plastics.

“At a time when people need factual medical research to inform their decisions around protecting their families, the plastics industry has worked to exploit our fears for profits,” Greenpeace US’s plastics research specialist Ivy Schlegel says.

“For years, the plastics industry has pushed industry-funded research to try to discredit the movement to end single-use plastic pollution. And when COVID-19 began to spread, they saw it as an opportunity to strike and activate their network of pro-plastic surrogates.”

Schlegel’s comments accompany a new briefing from Greenpeace USA that claims that some US industry groups are using Covid-19 to lobby that bans on plastic bags should be suspended.

Greenpeace claims that Competitive Enterprise Institute, Manhattan Institute, and American Energy Alliance have all been circulating new PR and studies that “explicitly warn anxious consumers that reusable grocery bags could be spreading coronavirus” and are therefore calling for single-use bags to be prioritised. The campaigners claim that those companies have “been known to work with” think tanks funded by fossil fuel companies.

“This is straight out of the fossil fuel industry’s climate denier playbook,” says Schlegel. “These extensive networks are masterful at executing PR campaigns to influence state and federal policy, particularly in moments of fear and crisis as they are doing now. We don’t yet have all of the answers on COVID-19 to ensure both customer and worker safety, but those decisions should be based on the best available science and not plastic industry talking points.” 

The claims have already been scientifically disputed. New research from the National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA, and Princeton University has found that Covid-19 can live on plastic surfaces for up to three days, longer than some other materials.

Is the UK different?

One of the UK Government’s responses to the Covid-19 outbreak has been to temporarily drop the 5p plastic charge for online deliveries, believing that it would help speed up food deliveries.

On the shopping front, consumers are now starting to pivot on their approach to plastic-wrapped fresh produce. For the last two years, plastics have been public enemy number one, but a new BloombergNEF report found that “concerns around food hygiene due to Covid-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity, undoing some of the early progress made by companies”.

With this in mind, it is presumable that the plastics industry could be one of the main benefactors from what is otherwise a stunted economic period. However, a survey of plastics producers in the UK suggests otherwise.

In response to the Government calling for all non-essential work to be closed, 127 members of the British Plastics Federation responded to a survey outlining the impact that the virus would have on the sector.

A survey asked whether companies could use their facilities to provide products and services that would be of great need to the NHS, of which a third of respondents agreed to assist. The protective masks and equipment used by the NHS will be single-use in nature as it isn’t safe for them to be reused or recycled based on contamination concerns. Understandably, sustainability and resource efficiency can fall down the priority list for an under-funded organisation working diligently to respond to a global threat.

However, almost 80% of the plastics companies are expecting a drop in turnover over the next six months. In total, 98% expressed concerns over the coronavirus’s impact on business operations, while 90% said the outbreak would impact supply chains and more than 50% claimed that it had impacted staff working abilities. The main disruption to the industry is the lack of viability in working from home. Just 25% of the workforce could work from home the report found, and amongst processors, the number falls to 18%.

The Federation’s director general Philip Law notes that the industry should be classed as “a key part of the national infrastructure and that many of its workers and their skills are critical in the production of much-needed products”.

“It comes as no surprise that our members and our industry are expecting major challenges in the weeks and months ahead. This survey demonstrates that the plastics industry is a crucial, strategic industry playing a pivotal role in national security and in ensuring we as a country can effectively fight the coronavirus. We urge the government to provide the essential support to keep manufacturers and their supply chains in operation, so the nation can be safely fed, professionally cared for and that vital infrastructure, such as drainage and waste management is supported,” Law says.

Science and guidance

It is here where the nuance of the debate re-emerges. Sustainability professionals and green groups alike have often said that plastics aren’t an “evil” material, often acting as a valuable resource, but rather the system that they operate in is broken.

As some parts of the plastics industry push to exploit loopholes and pushbacks on legislation, many are urgently wanting to ramp up productivity to assist with national responses to a pandemic. The balance comes in ensuring that new plastics production doesn’t do what it historically always has done, harm the natural environment and drive climate change.

Greenpeace has called for "independent guidance from medical professionals to inform our decisions around hygiene and shopping”, reflecting that this is a new strain of the virus and more information about how it works emerges daily.

Another thing that changes daily is the timelines to effectively transition back to a sense of normality; a time in (hopefully) the near future where businesses re-open and social distancing is reduced. It is at this point where humanity has a chance to learn. Climate change will likely rocket back up the political agenda and with key global conferences still scheduled for both climate and biodiversity, it is important to remember the impact that plastics pollution has had on both.

Online retailer Surfdome’s (own by Internet Fusion Group) head of sustainability Adam Hall has previously discussed the links between single-use plastics and climate change and biodiversity damage. Notably, Surfdome’s outbound packaging is 99.81% plastic-free.

Hall believes that the destruction of biodiversity and the increase in outbreaks like the coronavirus are “intertwined and not exclusive from one another” and there is research to support his beliefs. He states that rather than relaxing the focus on single-use plastics, now is the time to actually raise efforts on the issue.

“Now is the time to double down efforts to limit the impact of plastic pollution on biodiversity,” Halls says. “It’s also worth being aware that there are numerous claims that state the virus is persistent on plastic for longer than other common materials. There are far more effective ways to combat the spread of Covid 19, as laid out by the WHO.

“It’s our disregard for the natural world that got us here. It’s now time to reshape how we live in a post-coronavirus world and that must be within the planetary boundaries.”

In a time of unprecedented disruption, it is easy to let one prevailing issue consume all our efforts and focus. But there are challenges beyond the pandemic and resorting back to before the “Blue Planet effect” will merely create more issues in the long run. Plastics have their place in the economy, but not at the expense of the environment.

Matt Mace



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