Getty Images / WIRED
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 Foodservice 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.
But such measures may not be necessary, says Louise Edge, senior plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK. “Experts are telling us that when it comes to buying food and drinks, plastic packaging doesn’t offer any special protection – and reusable cups, bottles and containers are perfectly safe to use, as long as they are washed properly and social distancing is observed.” On June 22, more than 100 scientists published an open letter insisting that reusable containers are safe to use if basic hygiene is employed.
The UK government suspended its 5p plastic bag fee – introduced in 2015 – for online supermarket deliveries during the pandemic. Which accounts for a lot of plastic bags: Tesco, for instance, said online sales for delivery rose by 48.5 per cent in the three months to 30 May.
On a policy level, the UK’s ban on single-use plastic straws and stirrers, due to come into force this April, has been delayed by six months. Meanwhile, the EU Commission is being lobbied by plastic producers to delay or rethink its 2021 ban on single-use plastics. Over in the US, bans on plastic bags have been delayed or repealed while bans on reusable bags in shops have been temporarily introduced.
But campaigns are attempting to tackle the new single-use plastic spike. Environmental organisation City to Sea, which commissioned a survey in May showing 36 per cent of Brits feel pushed into using more single-use plastic due to Covid-19, launched a “contactless coffee” initiative to encourage UK coffee shops to safely accept reusable coffee cups again (Costa Coffee is already doing so).
Meanwhile, anti-plastic campaign group A Plastic Planet, in association with sustainable packaging companies Reelbrands and Transcend Packaging, launched the first plastic-free visors for frontline workers and medical staff; made from wood pulp and paper board, they are both recyclable and compostable.
While some designers have used this moment to launch elaborate plastic contraptions, others continue to work on reducing plastic waste. “Health, safety and hygiene are paramount, but they cannot come at the expense of the environment,” says Paul Priestman, co-founder of design firm PriestmanGoode, which recently staged a Design Museum exhibition about reducing waste generated by air travel.
“There are lots of ways we can ensure we don’t increase plastic production and consumption. In terms of the travel experience, rather than focus on single-use items, we should be using reusable, washable masks and work on designing touchless journeys. There are also huge strides being made in the development of antimicrobial materials, which can be integrated into fabrics or applied as surface coatings.”
But the economic consequences of the pandemic throw up yet another problem. Restrictions on travel have pushed oil prices to historic lows, in turn pushing the cost of virgin plastic below that of recycled plastic.
Eleni Iacovidou, lecturer in environmental management at Brunel University London, believes petrochemical companies could increase production of virgin plastic to stabilise the demand for crude oil. “Whether this will be a short-term or long-term trend depends on governments’ and businesses’ perseverance with maintaining efforts to reduce single-use plastics and increase plastic recycling rates,” she says. But many plastic reprocessing facilities are struggling to stay afloat. “There are real concerns that this could undermine the plastics recycling industry,” says Greenpeace’s Edge.
Over the last two years, as the climate crisis grew in public consciousness, plastic – particularly the single-use kind – became an easy villain to tackle. The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, Alliance to End Plastic Waste and UK Plastics Pact (UKPP) all committed businesses, governments and organisations to tackling plastic waste. The UKPP’s 150 signatories – from brands such as Nestlé and Unilever to supermarket chains including Sainsbury’s and Tesco – promise to eliminate “problematic or unnecessary” single-use plastic packaging and ensure 100 per cent of packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
Companies who made such pledges seem to be sticking to their guns. When contacted, Nestlé and the UK’s Food and Drink Federation – both UK Plastics Pact signatories – insisted their work and commitments to tackle plastic waste remain the same throughout the Covid-19 crisis. But broader assessment of the efficacy of such commitments is another matter. A report from June on the progress of 50 US consumer-facing companies to reduce plastic pollution concluded they are “far too slow in adopting responsive actions” to reduce waste and promote reusability, recyclability and compostability in their packaging.
Back to those blue skies though. Are recent contributions to plastic waste outweighed by the environmental gains triggered by the pandemic? Big-picture comparisons aren’t available – or really even possible – but there are impacts worth noting.
Largely as a result of significantly reduced travel, carbon emissions are by some estimates heading for a record 5.5 per cent annual drop. In April, daily carbon dioxide emissions were 17 per cent lower than the previous year. In London, during the height of lockdowns, toxic emissions at major roads and junctions fell by almost 50 per cent (but have since returned to normal).
Air traffic across Europe decreased by as much as 93 per cent in April compared to 2019 and ICAO forecast 1.5 billion fewer international air travellers this year. Less travel also means less waste: an estimated 6.1 million tonnes of cabin waste is generated on passenger flights each year, much of which is single-use plastic. Tourism creates waste at destinations, including single-use plastics in hotels and eateries. The British Plastics Federation, for instance, reports that demand fell for plastic items used in sectors such as hospitality during the pandemic, though figures are not available.
So what’s next? The increase in plastic might be temporary, but so might the savings in carbon. Calls for a “green recovery” from the coronavirus pandemic – at the global, European and UK level – have been growing, as some seek to avoid returning to the problematic “normal” which led to the climate crisis in the first place.
The fate of plastic, like the planet, hangs in the balance – governments simply need to decide which to prioritise. “The pandemic has interrupted progress on tackling the plastic problem, but we cannot let the temporary pause become an excuse for ongoing inaction,” says Edge. “Companies and governments still need to step up and shift us away from using plastic for throwaway items like food and drink packaging. They can ensure plastic is only used for essential items – like medical kit – and that it is captured and reused at the end of its life. That’s the only way we will stop this contamination of our environment.”
More great stories from WIRED
🦆 Google got rich from your data. DuckDuckGo is fighting back
💰 The Animal Crossing fans running in-game businesses
🤑 Inside the ‘bullshit’ get-rich-quick world of dropshipping
🎵 The secret behind the success of Apple’s AirPods
🔒 The UK’s lockdown rules, explained
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get The Email from WIRED, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm sharp.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.