PLASTIC PANDEMIC: THINKING OF THE FUTURE AT A TIME WHEN WE FEEL WE CAN'T SEE ONE
Text by Charlie Long
MAY 15th 2020
The devastating impact of COVID-19 and the extraordinary measures taken around the world have led to some tough questions for those working to combat plastic pollution and those who are concerned about the environment. How do we support those in the community hit hardest by the outbreak? Can the recycling industry survive COVID-19? Can we still achieve a circular economy for plastics? And, how can we, the environmental activists, keep our work going in a world in which "normal" still seems so far away?
Before COVID-19 decided to put the world on pause, the plastic bag and single use plastic was in retreat. The use of single-use plastics had become the subject of aggressive and increasingly successful restrictions. Consumers were becoming mindful of the need to reduce the amount of plastic they used and big companies were being forced to look at sustainable materials. However, Coronavirus isn’t the only pandemic we have on our hands, as plastic and ‘virgin plastic’ (plastic that is not recycled and has been freshly produced) has drastically increased in demand and recycling companies are struggling to stay afloat.
With the rollback of regulations, people’s obvious sanitary concerns and the plummeting prices of new plastics, the plastic crisis during this time is threatening to undo years of progress. Virgin plastic’s prices have drastically dropped due to the plunging oil prices - oil being the raw material used to make plastic. Obviously, during a time of such financial uncertainty, recycled materials being a lot more expensive than virgin, we are seeing more and more single-use plastic begin to creep back into our lives whilst the recycling industry struggles to turn a profit.
Single use plastic in fast fashion has also seen a huge increase. More of us are at home and spending out of boredom and it is having an effect on how much plastic is being produced for fast fashion brands and their packaging. Also, with many high street brands obviously being forced to go purely online – all sales are now having to be shipped in plastic which again is causing more virgin plastic to be produced.
Furthermore, there has already been many articles from BBC and SKY news about the cry out for more plastic screens to be put into the businesses and services that are open to the public. Whilst it is essential for all the incredible key workers to have the up-most security and protection at work – the environmental side of this amount of plastic that is needed globally is making environmentalists fearful for the repercussions.
America is proving to be one of the most dangerous contributors - Just 8.4 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S. according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The rest ends up disposed of in landfills, incinerated — contributing to harmful greenhouse gas emissions — or polluting oceans, rivers and other parts of the environment. Before the COVID-19, public awareness had led to most brands and retailers in the direction of using packaging or materials that are more sustainable. Some items, like fresh produce, were increasingly made available for purchase loose without packaging. Due to Covid-19 however, many parts of the world have lifted plastic restrictions due to such high demand from consumers, proving to be a recipe for huge climate damage when this time is over.
Whilst plastic during this time is innevatable and a lot of its production is saving many lives, it is not the time to sit back and wait to see what happens when this is over. Coronavirus a-side, 2020 was the year we were warned about - we needed to make crucial changes or else we may not see a future beyond 2050. We are also only a decade away, if we do not change, from seeing more plastic in the ocean than marine wildlife. It is essential that during this time we respect why restrictions are lifted and why plastic is being produced but also try our best to still advocate and still find ways of helping in our ways.
Some things you can do to help include:
Supporting informal sector waste pickers by making donations to local charities.
Using reusable shopping bags and advocating for local governments to reconsider lifting restrictions on single-use plastics. This is a MUST.
Responsibly discarding disposable products like masks and gloves through formal waste collection systems, rather than littering or leaving them in public places. Karen I’m watching you.
Advocating for businesses to uphold commitments to reduce plastic waste, and encouraging them not to lose sight of longer-term sustainability targets.
Embracing and helping popularize the concept of the circular economy for plastics – which keeps plastic waste out of our waterways, our oceans and our environment through the principle of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
The most important thing is to not lose hope. Everything is scary and dark right now, but we will get through this. We just need to make sure we all get through this with a sustainable future ahead of us. Stay safe, stay healthy and stay advocating for essential changes we need for our futures.