A year on from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of the first vaccines shines a distant light beyond the end of a challenging time. These extraordinary circumstances have prompted many changes globally, including influencing our use of, and attitudes towards, single-use plastic. With the UK’s Environment Bill going through the legislative process, and NGOs and others today writing to the prime minister to call for targets to tackle plastic pollution within the bill, it is as important as ever to be mindful of our complex relationship with the material.

As a reliable and affordable material for personal protective equipment (PPE), plastic has played an essential role in healthcare systems under immense pressure. As a means of permitting shops and restaurants to continue serving customers, it has likely kept many businesses afloat. But while the crisis has illustrated the essential role of plastic, it has also exposed how easily many countries’ recycling and waste management systems can be overwhelmed by the scale of its rapidly increased use, and how the perception that nature has had a chance to recover during the pandemic was in many ways a misleading one.

 

Global sales of disposable face masks alone are set to rise from an estimated US$800 million in 2019 to US$166 billion in 2020.

Despite some official advice recommending reusable cloth masks, alongside frequent handwashing, as appropriate precautions for the general public, disposable PPE’s accessibility and relatively low cost has led to single-use masks and gloves littering streets and waterways. Global sales of disposable face masks alone are set to rise from an estimated US$800 million in 2019 to US$166 billion in 2020, and UCL’s Plastic Waste Hub estimates that if everyone in the UK used one single-use mask each day for a year, we would generate a further 66,000 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic waste.

Plastics UK environment bill
Credit: Annkathrin Sharp

But disposable PPE is not the only plastic product that has seen a jump in use during the pandemic. Fears of hygiene risks around reusable containers, shopping bags and coffee cups resulted in disposable items becoming the norm in many places, even though scientific advice is that these hygiene fears about reusables are unfounded. Domestic waste and recycling bins have been filling more quickly during lockdowns, and restaurants were forced to use more disposable takeaway packaging to stay open. This increase in volume, combined with waste sector staff shortages due to infection control measures, heavily compromised the ability of waste collection and recycling to cope. The resulting disruption, and limited infrastructure in the recycling sector, led to a documented increase in landfill and incineration in countries such as the UK, Italy and Japan, as excess waste was tipped or burned.

Despite the “build back better” rhetoric, the pandemic has created conditions where governments have felt able to suspend some environmental measures. In some cases lobbyists have called for new environmental legislation, such as restrictions on single-use plastics, to be delayed or scrapped. The parallel drop in oil prices has led to a slump in the market for recycled plastic – cheaper oil and gas means recycled plastic production is less competitive next to virgin material.

There is a complex relationship between the demand for, and price of, fossil fuels and plastic production, but the concern is that as the economy recovers post-Covid-19, the growth in global plastic production will continue as before. Without green recovery policies, and specifically targeted measures to reduce overall plastics use, we will continue to struggle with ever-growing plastic waste, which overwhelms the world’s capacity to manage it.

So how do we chart a new way forward?

Plastics shift in a post-Covid world
Credit: Annkathrin Sharp

A green recovery that prioritises environmental recovery and future resilience is vital. Though the coming months are likely to see vaccination programmes in some parts of the world, the effect of Covid-19 on the global economy will be with us for some time, requiring a committed, conscious approach to navigating the future.

One priority will be changing the production and consumption model away from a linear make-use-dispose pattern to a more circular economy, where material is retained through extended use, repair and (ultimately) recycling.

Which is why FFI has joined a broad group of NGOs, faith groups, businesses, academics and others to call for the inclusion of plastic pollution reduction targets within the UK’s Environment Bill, which enters the report stage of its Parliamentary journey this week. If the Bill is sufficiently ambitious on plastics, and includes robust mechanisms for delivery, it presents an opportunity for the UK to be a leader in ending the production and use of unnecessary single-use plastic and driving a shift towards reusables and accompanying waste reduction.

Around the world, investment and appropriate incentives could also drive integrated reusable schemes and improved design and capacity of recycling infrastructure globally, creating jobs, reducing pollution and creating greater demand for recycled content in products and packaging. In lower-income nations, authorities need to support waste pickers and collection workers in more informal waste management systems to ensure basic levels of health protection and financial viability, as highlighted in the 2019 No Time to Waste Report.

If the Environment Bill is sufficiently ambitious on plastics, and includes robust mechanisms for delivery, it presents an opportunity for the UK to be a leader in ending the production and use of unnecessary single-use plastic and driving a shift towards reusables and accompanying waste reduction.
Annkathrin Sharp Programme Officer, Marine Plastics

Societies and economies are at a crossroads. If governmental and societal responses to this crisis further entrench a consumption-driven, fossil-fuel-intensive economic system, the stage will be set for recurring pandemics and cascading environmental crises. Alternatively, by ensuring that we reconsider the drivers of our economy after this pandemic, and take the opportunity for reform towards a more environmentally and socially sustainable model, the foundations will be set for resilience and prosperity.

What role would plastic have in this world? Plastic is an inherently useful material and it’s the best solution for some products, but the production of new plastic needs to be reduced, what is produced needs to be used responsibly, and we need systems in place to recapture and reprocess the plastic already produced so that it does not play havoc in the natural environment.

By making decisions that consciously put nature and our environment first, we could begin to reap the benefits of safeguarding biodiversity, building climate resilience and, through these, delivering safe, prosperous societies that ensure our own long-term survival.

The joint letter to the prime minister calling for the inclusion of plastic pollution reduction targets in the UK’s Environment Bill can be found here.