Plastics Industry Uses the Pandemic to Boost Production

Submitted by bporter on July 13, 2020

By Beth Porter

The COVID-19 crisis has touched every aspect of our society and laid bare the fundamental, unjust problems in many of our systems, particularly in healthcare, agriculture, and housing. The waste system is also one that has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, causing problems for communities and sustainability goals, but has gotten less attention:

  • Many communities experienced temporary suspensions of curbside recycling while areas are also reporting residential waste increases up to 35 percent.
  • Hundreds of waste management professionals have become ill, stressing the need for greater safeguards including hazard pay and more PPE.
  • There have been spikes in demand for certain materials, like recovered fiber for tissue and paper towels, while commercial sources for recyclables have stalled with closures.

Meanwhile, the plastics industry has used the global pandemic to try to improve its image, while fighting efforts to reduce waste and improve the recycling system.

Globally, 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced every year. Demand for plastics is a growing source of greenhouse gases as it increasingly drives the world’s consumption of oil and gas. Plastic pollution has reached crisis levels, with a dump truck’s worth of plastic pouring into our oceans every minute. This threatens over 800 species of wildlife. Microplastics are rapidly filling our water, soil, and even our air. This problem devastating our environment and we’re just beginning to understand the potent affects it can have on our health.

There are many reasons why plastics have such a bad reputation and the industry has seized this time to improve its image and ramp up consumption. Industry efforts have been effective, as some companies report double-digit percentage sale increases.

The bottom line is that single-use plastics are not the solution. And the plastic industry’s arguments will lead to a decrease in recycling and reusables that will be harmful to public health nationwide.

Plastics and the Pandemic

At the start of the pandemic, the Plastics Industry Association sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, urging it to publicly state single-use plastics as a safer choice than reusable options. Though plastics are a common material in the healthcare industry, there are still efforts in healthcare to replace harmful plastics with non-toxic alternatives and reduce unnecessary plastic waste.

But there is a lack of substantive evidence to back up claims that daily items such as single-use plastic bags and food service ware are less likely to transmit the coronavirus. The industry has commonly cited older studies that only confirm bacteria can accumulate on unwashed bags (and that washing reusable bags destroys the bacteria).

Recently, over 100 scientists from 18 countries affirmed that reusables are safe and don’t increase the chance of virus transmission. They state that single-use plastics are not inherently safer and cause additional public health concerns.

The plastics industry has also taken part in requesting $1 billion from any Congressional infrastructure support due to COVID-19. This request would provide grants for improvement in recycling collection and processing infrastructure. The US recycling system does need infrastructure improvements – for example, we have limited mills that produce recycled paper products and limited glass refineries which contributes to lower glass recovery rates. But simply focusing on infrastructure does not address the fundamental problem: plastic production.

There are global, multi-stakeholder efforts to reduce plastic pollution and improve its circularity that go well beyond infrastructure improvements. But the industry continues to push back on efforts that will achieve these goals. 

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