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Another casualty of the pandemic: We’re ‘drowning’ in single-use plastics again

August 17, 2020, 3:36 PM UTC

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed efforts to reduce or ban single-use plastics back by years—and the culprit isn’t simply due to a rise in takeaway containers and disposable face masks.

A whole host of shifts, from the rapid fall in oil prices—making “virgin” plastics cheaper—to the economic toll on waste management companies and municipalities, to delays in local bans and restrictions, are expected to limit our collective ability to abolish plastic waste, Jefferies analysts said in a report on Monday.

“Bans and taxes have been rolled back, physical and chemical recycling activity has decreased, and virus concerns may have reduced consumers’ desire to minimize consumption of single-use plastics,” the report, entitled “Drowning in Plastics,” said.

The most surprising twist, the analysts found, may be that our own plastic consumption isn’t the root of the problem.

While take-away meals, supermarket binge shopping, and disposable face masks have all produced new gluts of plastic waste, that increase has been mostly (if not entirely) offset by the economic hits elsewhere from the pandemic: declines in plastic use for the industrial and commercial businesses that have seen business decline, Jefferies analysts said.

In the U.S., even the fresh wave of PPE—which is made of plastic fibres, and cannot be recycled—has likely so far been offset by the decline in other kinds of medical waste, the report found, as surgeries were delayed, and emergency visits fell.

But the bigger picture is more worrying. The pandemic is hitting hard the firms that collect and process plastics for recycling. And laws expanding restrictions on plastic use are being moth-balled by policymakers whose attention is needed elsewhere—this, despite a widespread consumer backlash against such waste. And then there’s the riddle of making recycling plastic an economically feasible activity, particularly during a pandemic.

“Even in the developed world, standards of waste treatment have gone down, with COVID-19 significantly affecting the waste services sector, and particularly the recycling industry,” the report said. “Companies have been hit by a myriad of factors including staffing limitations, forced closures, budget cuts, unfavorable regulations, low oil prices, and lower demand.”
The steep drop in oil prices, as the pandemic and ensuing lockdown and financial crises have cut into air travel and industrial activity, has also made newly made, or “virgin”, plastic cheaper, as their base are the petrochemicals produced with oil products. Because recycled plastics’ costs are fixed, they get no financial benefit when oil prices fall, and so are more expensive in comparison to fresh plastic, the report noted. Steep investment in petrochemicals processing by oil and gas companies is likely to only make that dichotomy more extreme.

A local issue

The strains of the pandemic have hit not just the waste management companies, but also the cities and regions who employ them, including in collection. Many regions in the U.S. were already cutting or eliminating recycling programs, particularly after China and other countries restricted or banned imports of foreign waste.

That trend now looks set to continue. The impact on public finances has made recycling programs vulnerable, while the shift from commercial to residential waste has challenged collection logistics, alongside worries that collection programs could spread the virus. While the EU’s new waste tax policy will sharply restrict single-use plastics, cuts, delays or outright suspensions to recycling collection programs have been announced in the U.K., as well as U.S. cities from Denver to Anchorage, the report noted. Companies including Target and Whole Foods are trying t do their part, restricting or banning reusable cups, bags or other goods. But, given the new reality, such gestures may come up far short of what’s needed.

Meanwhile, fresh gluts of PPE are not only not recyclable, but have been tainting waste collection, and have become a significant source of public litter, the analysts said.

The delayed momentum to restrict plastic has clear implications. According to a joint study from U.K. researchers released in July, at current “business as usual” rates, the pace of plastic entering the world’s oceans will triple by 2040.