In the wake of the global pandemic, countries have delayed or backtracked on policies aimed at reducing plastic, while PPE is already ending up in the ocean.
At first, stories of the pandemic’s environmental impact focused on blue-sky cities suddenly free of pollution, reductions in carbon emissions and jokes about “nature healing”. But as we emerge from lockdowns, one thing has become clear: plastic is back with a vengeance.
Efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus have meant ramped-up hygiene measures, leading to a proliferation of perspex “sneeze guard” screens and single-use plastic packaging. Commitments to tackle plastic waste have seemingly been eased or put on hold: the UK delayed its ban on plastic straws and many US states have delayed or reversed bans on plastic bags. So are global efforts to fight plastic being undone, or is this just a bump in the road?
In the wake of a global pandemic, some parts of the plastic renaissance were inevitable. In the healthcare industry, demand for single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) has skyrocketed. By late June, two billion items of PPE had been delivered to medical and care staff across England since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, and almost 28 billion items had been ordered overall, while French authorities ordered two billion disposable masks. Unfortunately, some of that PPE is ending up polluting oceans.
Other sectors are jumping back on the plastic train too. Shops, eateries and even offices have installed perspex screens in the hope of reducing droplet transmission of Covid-19. The UK brand Perspex increased its acrylic sheet production by 300 per cent from February to March. In the US, plexiglass product manufacturers reported up to a 30-fold spike in sales. Though not single-use, it’s unclear how such screens will be disposed of when no longer needed.
In 2015, when the last comprehensive global dataset was compiled, 381 million tonnes of plastic were produced, while 55 per cent of plastic waste was discarded, 25 per cent was incinerated (causing carbon emissions), and only 20 per cent was recycled. In May, the global market for packaging was projected to grow by 5.5 per cent during the pandemic, led by plastic. The UK’s Food service Packaging Association reported in April that single-use cups and wrapped single-use cutlery “are in huge demand”. The British Plastics Federation confirmed its members that supply packaging for food and drink, bleach, soap and medicines were operating at record capacities.
Citing health concerns, reusable cups – which had become a badge of environmental do-goodism – were temporarily banned from coffee shops, including Starbucks, which had previously introduced charges for its unrecyclable single-use cups made with plastic film. Many UK pubs that reopened in a takeaway context are serving only in plastic cups. Once fully reopened on July 4, pub chains Wetherspoons, Greene King and McMullen’s will introduce measures including perspex screens at bars and individually wrapped condiments and cutlery.