What does the coronavirus mean for single-use plastics? (Equal Times)

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In Europe, the EU still intends to go ahead with the ban on single-use plastics as of 2021, but plastic consumption has also increased considerably due to the fear of catching the virus

I wrote this article for Equal Times.

(EC-Audiovisual Service/Arnaud Finistre)

Plastics and coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic, and the public’s concerns about contact with people and things, has reopened the debate on the viability of single-use plastics, giving a lifeline to the plastics industry, which has jumped on the opportunity to exploit the fears around the use of cloth or biodegradable bags, as well as possible substitutes, such as our own packaging, experts warn.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, a growing number of governments had banned single-use plastic bags in an effort to reduce waste. Under pressure from activists and consumers, hundreds of companies, many of them multinationals such as Danone, Coca-Cola and Nestlé, pledged that 100 per cent of the plastics they use would be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

With the spread of coronavirus, the behaviour of consumers, even the best intentioned, has changed: during confinement, plastic has been a key element in the sale and purchase of goods in the many countries where its use has not yet been banned, whether it be for carrying produce from the fields, for preserving food, or in the form of gloves to sort fruit and vegetables.

“The exceptional nature of the situation means that we have to be more cautious than ever about jumping to definitive conclusions,” says Miquel Roset, director of Retorna, a non-profit initiative working to improve the current system for collecting packaging waste. Although, he adds, it does seem clear that the plastics industry “is trying to take advantage of the situation and putting pressure on the authorities to link single-use plastic to better health and safety”. This situation, as he points out, is not new, as the plastics industry “has been defending models and products that are harmful to the environment for decades”.

The recycling myth

The documentary Plastic Wars, a joint investigative journalism initiative by Frontline (a programme on the US TV station PBS) and NPR (a US-based non-profit media organisation), shows how, since the late 1980s, the plastics industry has spent tens of millions on a very concrete strategy with a very concrete goal: promoting recycling through advertising, recycling projects and public relations, telling users that plastic could and should be recycled.

This claim contradicts the industry’s own internal records. A report sent to its top executives in 1973 described plastic recycling as “expensive”, “difficult” and “unfeasible”. As it is today, the industry was already facing initiatives to ban or curb its use back then.

Recycling became a way to avoid bans and sell more plastic in an increasingly environmentally conscious world.

As Eusebio Martínez de la Casa, president of Recircula, a platform promoted by a group of professionals committed to the effective implementation of a circular economy, explains, the alarm more recently raised by the media about the effects of using plastic led to mistrust on the part of consumers, some of whom began to demonise this material that they had previously used on a daily basis.

This had two consequences in Europe, explains Martínez de la Casa: “Firstly, the regulatory measures. Interestingly, within just seven months, the European Union managed to agree on a directive on single-use plastics, which is completely unprecedented. And then, there was the business side (such as replacing plastic bags with other compostable or paper bags, or removing the plastic rings on beverage packaging), in view of the growing consumer opposition to the massive use of single-use plastic, which is subsequently mismanaged and ends up in the sea”.

Plastic: synonymous with hygiene, health and safety?

The plastics lobby seems to have found renewed momentum in the current circumstances. As Retorna’s director points out, the industry is pushing people to use plastic again – in the context of the pandemic – based on “arguments and studies of questionable validity and origin”.

In the United States, for example, the lobby is being quite aggressive, targeting the reusable bags that a large number of people increasingly use for shopping instead of disposable plastic bags. As an industry campaign under the Bag the Ban banner claims, they are only trying to avoid disaster, because reusable bags can end up full of germs, putting the public and retail workers at risk.

The plastics industry also sent a letter to the US Department of Health, calling for a public statement on the health and safety benefits of single-use plastic amid the pandemic.

There is, however, no scientific basis for this view. As Greenpeace points out: “Just because a material is made from single-use plastic does not make it less likely to transmit viral infections during use; in fact, plastic surfaces appear to allow coronaviruses to remain infectious for particularly long periods compared to other materials.” The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, recently published the results of an experiment showing that coronavirus is more stable on plastic (where it was detected for up to 72 hours) than on cardboard (where it can remain for up to 24 hours).

To our knowledge, there is no evidence that reusable bags are more contaminated than single-use bags from shops such as grocery stores where they are usually kept in storage.

Within no time, some hard-won bans designed to reduce the use of plastics have been reversed under pressure from the plastics lobby in the United States. The state of Maine, for example, has postponed its ban on plastic bags, which was due to take effect in April, until at least January 2021, while the governors of Massachusetts and Illinois have banned or discouraged the use of reusable grocery bags. And cities such as Bellingham, Albuquerque or New Mexico have announced a pause in the ban on plastic bags.

According to the latest data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, 4.14 million tons of plastic bags, sacks and wrappers were produced in 2017 and just 9.4 per cent was recycled. Perry Wheeler, senior communications specialist at Greenpeace USA, says they do not have specific manufacturing data for each product but points out that although many cities and states have begun to take action on disposable bags and straws, the use of the material in these products “is just the tip of the iceberg”.

In Europe, the EU still intends to go ahead with the ban on single-use plastics as of 2021, but plastic consumption has also increased considerably due to the fear of catching the virus.

In Spain, one of the countries most affected by the pandemic, packaging company Ingamark Spain, reported that its sales had grown by 40 per cent and that some of its employees’ holidays had to be postponed to keep up with the rise in production levels over the past few weeks.

According to the company’s owner, José Manuel Caballero, his team is working tirelessly to create trays, vacuum bags and plastic film so that basic products are kept “fresh and hygienic” and to “make it quicker and easier to pick them up from the shelf and take them home without waiting in line” to be served by the butcher or fishmonger, for example.

Mayca Bernardo, head of communications at the Spanish company Cicloplast, a not-for-profit initiative (encompassing all companies in the plastics sector) committed to promoting the recycling of plastics, says she “does not have any quantitative data as such at the moment” on the increase in the production of this type of material.

As Martínez de la Casa, president of Recircula, points out, the increase in the production of plastics is owed to the fact that its use has been linked to hygiene, health and protection. “Just this morning, one of the speakers in a webinar I took part in, who works in a Scandinavian company that manufactures products for the hotel and catering industry, said that since the outbreak of the pandemic their customers have been asking for single-use products again.” Establishments closed down by the pandemic are now getting ready to reopen, and it is thought that “many customers will be afraid to use cutlery and cups used by other people”. And the trend seems likely to change more than the cutlery. Table covers and protectors had become a rarity in restaurants, but it is thought that customers will want them back, he explains.

The long-term effects on the industry as a whole remain to be seen. Martínez de la Casa points out that beverage companies, for example, unlike other food products, have not benefited at all from the crisis and have been “hit really hard” because most of their turnover comes from sales in bars that have been closed for an indefinite period and may face limitations on the numbers they can serve when they reopen.

One thing Martínez de la Casa is sure of is that there “will be a revival in the use of plastic”. “This material is going to become really cheap because oil prices have hit rock bottom and there will be a temptation to use it as the top packaging solution, even more so than before this crisis” as it will be cheaper than recycling, he says. The expert wonders whether, in the current circumstances, businesses will stick to their previously announced commitments to end the excessive use of plastics.