The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how a health and related economic crises can block or significantly delay carefully crafted legal and regulatory responses to environmental problems. In this article we look at the example of plastics and explore how, in the wake of concern about rapid transmission of COVID-19, public health officials, the health care sector, and the plastics industry (and the industries that use their packaging products such as the food and beverages sector) are exerting considerable pressure to relax efforts to regulate plastics and phase-out single use plastics (SUPs).
The narrative to date has been multi-layered. Given widespread uncertainty about how the pandemic would proceed, an initial run on many consumer goods led to shortages and hoarding and a steep rise in global plastic consumption and waste generation. Concern over surface transmission of the virus from handling also resulted in a rapid shift from reusables to a reliance on disposable products in many sectors. SUP consumption is estimated to have increased by 200-300 per cent between February and June 2020, while recycling rates declined relative to pre-COVID-19 rates and littering on lands and waters have increased. By mid July 2020, waste management service providers estimated that North American households were generating up to 50 per cent more waste by volume than they did pre-COVID-19. This increase can be attributed to numerous factors including: 1) a massive increase in reliance on disposable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) leading to an unfortunate increase in litter and plastic pollution; 2) a sharp rise in the e-commerce industry as consumers felt safer staying at home and having goods and food delivered to them; and 3) an increase in consumer pick-up services at curbside by retailers and other service providers.
On the positive side, there were drastic reductions in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in many nations including Canada as a result of the reduced commuter traffic and manufacturer operations. In addition, Canadians came together and sewed reusable cloth masks to alleviate pressure on commercial, scarce PPE supplies. Mask wearing along with proper hand washing showed that education and emphasis on hygiene can promote greater reuse of products. However, these efforts seem meager in light of the challenges posed by historical and ongoing damage microplastics are causing to the oceans. In October 2020, Australian researchers studying the extent of plastic pollution in deep sea sediments estimated conservatively that at least 14 million tonnes of microplastics reside on oceans based on their core sampling work. These historical accumulations are a reminder of the environmental damage and contamination impacts of resource extraction, refining, chemical synthesis, manufacturing, packaging, filling (of packaging such as bottles), transportation related to plastics use.
The pandemic also has shown that socio-technical, educational, and legal mechanisms need to be instituted to support reduction and reuse of plastics and other reusable products (e.g. dishes, bottles, glasses and cutlery) by industry and consumers. For example, the restaurant and food industries should be initially incentivized and eventually required to reuse plastics and other reusable products made of stainless steel, glass and ceramics (for containers, bottles and eating ware such as dishes, glasses and cutlery). Benefits of reuse for businesses include: cutting costs, adapting to individual needs, optimizing operations, building brand loyalty, improving user experience, and gathering intelligence on user preferences and system performance. Moreover, a complete assessment of the environmental damage and contamination impacts of the industrial emissions related to resource extraction, refining, chemical synthesis, manufacturing, etc. associated with the increased plastics use during the pandemic will be required once the outbreak ends.