Pandemic Demands Plastic

Despite current bans, observers predict more plastic in coming years. 

June 09, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—On March 18, one week after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, Tony Radoszewski, head of the plastics industry’s main U.S. lobbying group, sent the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services a strongly worded letter. Bans on single-use items had been proliferating across states and cities for years, but with the virus threatening America, he said, enough was enough, Bloomberg reports.

“Single-use plastic products are the most sanitary choice when it comes to many applications, especially the consumption and transport of food, whether purchased at a restaurant or at a grocery store,” Radoszewski wrote. “We ask that the department speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products.”

During the pandemic, plastics lobbyists have been touting the role their products play in keeping people safe, and early figures indicate those efforts are being rewarded. In April both Germany’s Ineos Styrolution Group and U.S.-based Trinseo SA reported seeing double-digit percentage increases in sales at their food packaging and health-care divisions.

“These companies have seized the moment, particularly to roll back things like plastic bag bans,” said Steven Feit, a staff attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law. “Some analysts are talking about wrapping everything in plastic, including bananas, and that is certainly what the industry is pushing for.”

Just a few months ago, under pressure from both investors and consumers, companies were pledging to reduce their reliance on plastic packaging. More than 125 countries have a plastic ban of some sort, according to a 2018 report from the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Resources Institute.

Many people realize that plastic usage has gone well beyond what recycling can manage. Where paper breaks down easily, plastic requires costly chemicals to degrade, and many forms of plastic can’t be recycled at all. The problems of plastic recycling were once easy to ignore.

However, by the time the coronavirus arrived, smaller cities such as Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Dalton, Georgia, decided that the potential for used cups and cutlery to transmit the virus was too big a risk. Simultaneously, restaurant chains, including Starbucks and Dunkin’, announced a temporary ban on customers bringing in reusable coffee mugs, and New York state postponed a plastic bag ban set to go into effect on March 1.

Judith Enck, a former administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agrees that public health comes first. But as the founder of the grassroots Beyond Plastics project, she questions whether disposable cups make people safer. Currency, for instance, is a notorious germ-carrier.

The biggest factor in whether single-use plastic will maintain its momentum post-COVID-19 may be the price of oil, which has collapsed because of pressures from the pandemic and the Russia-Saudi Arabia price war.

BloombergNEF materials analyst Julia Attwood says that while she and her colleagues have adjusted their forecasts slightly downward in the near term, strong demand should keep plastic production high despite the lower margins on cheaper product. While that’s not ideal for manufacturers, it’s worse for proponents of recycling. Businesses around the world are hurting and may not be able to justify the expense of using recycled plastic when the virgin plastic costs so much less.

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