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Plastic waste has skyrocketed during the pandemic, but there is hope


As COVID-19 continues to take its toll across much of the planet, lockdowns and other mitigation measures have resulted in an unexpected consequence harming the environment: more plastic waste.

Demand for plastic masks and gloves, single-use plastic items and bottled water has skyrocketed, partly as a result of a precipitous drop in the price of crude oil, which has made it even cheaper to churn out disposable plastic products.

As plastic waste rises, the environment suffers

Needless to say, the increase in plastic waste has worried environmentalists and politicians alike across the European Union, which alone generates some 26 million tons of plastic waste each year. “We are concerned about [the] potential disruption of the markets for recycled plastics caused by the low prices of crude oil, and also about littering of disposable masks and gloves,” explained Virginijus Sinkevicius, the European Union’s Environment Commissioner.

Worse: less than a third of plastic waste in the EU was recycled even before the pandemic, which has seen several plastic recycling plants temporarily shut down or scale back their operations. This is an especial concern as the EU has pledged to reuse 10 million tons of recycled plastics for new products by 2025.

Nor is the problem of excessive plastic waste fuelled by the pandemic limited to Europe. Countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have all seen their already massive plastic waste outputs increase even further. As millions of people were forced to stay indoors for weeks and even months during lockdowns earlier this year, their use of disposable plastic products, especially packaging, surged and most of it has been left unrecycled.

Plastic waste everywhere

Long before the pandemic, Southeast Asian countries were already notorious for producing massive amounts of plastic waste with more than half of the 8 million tons of plastic that ends up in the oceans each year originating in just a few countries in the region, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.

In Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, alone the teeming metropolis’s pre-lockdown daily average of 2,115 tons of single-use plastics waste ballooned to more than 3,400 tons a day in April. Across the country plastic waste likewise shot up, from 5,000 tons to 6,300 tons a day, according to the Thailand Environment Institute.

Experts believe that the current situation is a foretaste of things to come unless meaningful action on plastic waste is taken globally. In just 20 years, warn British scientists, as much as 1.3 billion tons of plastic could end up in the environment, both on land and in the ocean, worsening an already acute crisis.

“It’s difficult to picture an amount that large, but if you could imagine laying out all that plastic across a flat surface, it would cover the area of the UK 1.5 times,” observes Costas Velis, an expert in resource management at the University of Leeds. “It’s complex [to calculate] because plastic is everywhere and, in every part of the world, it’s different in terms of how it’s used and dealt with.”

Stemming the tide

In what could be an encouraging sign of changing times, more and more companies are launching concerted efforts to reduce their plastic footprints by recycling more, and reusing waste already out there for new products. That is why despite the current crisis in plastic waste the EU’s goal of 10 million tons of recycled plastic getting reused in new products every year in Europe by 2025 is still within reach.

Companies like Danone, a multinational food-products corporation that also sells bottled water, have placed increasing emphasis on the circular economy in line with political and environmental goals on the continent. Danone is implementing sustainable packaging solutions by help of modern recycling technologies.

In North America, more than 80% of Danone’s locally made packaging is already reusable, recyclable or compostable, according to the company. “The preservation of natural resources goes back to the idea that, where possible, we no longer use packaging from finite resources,” explains Deanna Bratter, the company’s senior director of public benefit and sustainable development.

“If we can, we should preserve them and keep existing materials in use. The idea is to increase recycled content and develop renewable materials. And to invest in the development and use of these renewable materials,” Bratter adds.

Other global leaders like Britvic and Unilever are engaged in similar sustainability projects, while recycling firms such as ALPLA and REMONDIS are in the process of forming a cross-industry consortium focused on leveraging enhanced recycling technologies.

Consumer’s choice

In doing so, the industry is not only in line with lawmakers, but with consumers as well. Indeed, consumers in Europe and elsewhere have become increasingly aware of the need for recycling and reusing, and they aren’t shy in speaking out about it. In fact, most Europeans want to see reusable plastic used in new products, including water bottles.

According to new research, as many as 93% Europeans think plastic bottles should contain recycled content and most of them are even willing to pay extra for such bottles. In addition, 55% said they wanted most of a water bottle to be made with recycled material, although at the moment less than 15% of content is recycled in plastic packaging and bottles in Europe.

For the plastics sector the pandemic could well be a blessing in disguise. It can offer up a chance to fundamentally change the way business is done. If so, our societies will emerge healthier and cleaner from this era of COVID-19.


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