Thanks to the Coronavirus, We Really Are Being Buried in Plastic

Many had high hopes that we might come out of this in a better and cleaner place.

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Nobody wants your plastic stuff.
Nobody wants your plastic stuff.

Getty Images 

A few months ago at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, I worried that we were about to be buried in garbage. My colleague Katherine Martinko pleaded with readers to not let this pandemic ruin the fight against single-use plastics. Alas, the take-out chickens have come home to roost; thanks to the pandemic, we are using more single-use plastic than ever, we are recycling less than ever, and in many cases we are not even bothering to pick up after ourselves.

Saabira Chaudhuri writes in the Wall Street Journal about how "the world’s reopening from coronavirus lockdowns is wrapped in plastic, most of which will never be recycled."

The virus has given a new foothold to single-use plastics previously criticized for the waste they generate. To stem transmission of Covid-19, bars are serving drinks in plastic cups, supermarkets are wrapping once loose fruits and baked goods in plastic and offices are adding plastic coverings to everything from doorknobs to elevator buttons.

Most of the plastics in demand are also the hardest to recycle, such as bags, wraps, and pouches. Demand for flexible packaging has increased by 10% and shows no sign of letting up; one manufacturer says, “As long as the virus is around people will continue to buy packaged.” The entire plastics lobbying industry is hard at work too.

Some bans on plastic shopping bags have been overturned, or fees lifted, because of concerns reusable alternatives could spread the virus. The plastics industry is lobbying for more bans to be scrapped. The Plastics Industry Association recently asked Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to speak out against bans, saying they are “a public safety risk.”

According to the Economist, it isn't just consumer demand; it's also all the disposable protection equipment used in hospitals and the masks and gloves people are wearing while shopping. "Data are hard to come by but, for example, consumption of single-use plastic may have grown by 250-300%" Then there is all the packaging that comes with online ordering.

Goods are often packaged in plastic comprising several layers. That keeps the contents safe in aeroplane holds and on delivery lorries. It also makes it nearly impossible to recycle the plastic. At the same time, the locked-down masses have been consuming home deliveries from restaurants in record numbers. First-quarter sales at Uber Eats, one of America’s biggest restaurant-delivery apps, for example, rose by 54% year on year. Every extra portion of curry, or pot of garlic dip, means more plastic waste.
Plastic gloves on the street
Plastic gloves on the street.  Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

At the same time as we are using more plastic, recycling has collapsed. Because of the drop in the price of natural gas and oil, virgin plastic is cheaper than ever, and the recycled stuff has negative value; costing more to pick up and separate than it is worth. Nobody wants to touch it either, so municipalities are just dumping or burning it. As Melissa Breyer noted, much of it is finding its way to the oceans where it becomes "the asbestos of the seas,” as Dan Parsons, director of the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of Hull, tells the Economist.

But what worries Mr Parsons is that years spent trying to change the public’s attitude towards single-use plastic might now be lost. Preliminary findings from research his team has conducted suggest that the public has reverted to its earlier insouciance about plastic waste. 
The beach in Bournemouth, June 25, 2020
The beach in Bournemouth, June 25, 2020.  Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Then there is the depressing fact that so many people have reverted to form after the lockdown, heading to the beach and the park and just leaving crap (figuratively and literally) everywhere. Jo Ellison of the Financial Times describes the scene in Bournemouth, England:

Fifty tonnes of rubbish were picked up on Bournemouth beach in the aftermath of a heatwave in which half a million people descended on its sands and delivered a horror show of pictures that recalled Dante’s hottest circles of hell. “The sights and smell were horrendous, like nothing I’ve ever come across before,” said Peter Ryan, of the Dorset Devils, a group of local litter pick-up volunteers, talking to The Guardian. “There was the smell of weed, urine and excrement, and we found so many empty beer bottles. There were cans, wrappers, wet wipes and even underpants. It was horrific.”

Ellison, like this writer, thought that people would come to love the empty streets and clear skies, and that we might all come out of this in a better, cleaner, and healthier world. It appears not to be.

It seems a tragedy that the pandemic has so quickly become an adjunct of an even more dangerous environmental catastrophe. Or that we who parroted on for weeks about how we would do better in future have fallen back on disgusting habits in the space of a few hot days.
Baker Beach, San Francisco, May 26, 2020
Baker Beach, San Francisco, May 26, 2020. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It can't last. the same issues that led to the invention of recycling, namely overflowing landfills and garbage everywhere, will raise their ugly heads again. Recycling was a sham, and don't fall for any of this circular economy and chemical recycling stuff either; somebody still has to pay to pick it all up and separate it, and it takes a huge amount of energy to boil it all that plastics down to its constituents. It's all just Recycling 2.0, a method of keeping the single-use plastics party going.

Burned once, the municipalities and governments may be twice shy and this time demand producer responsibility and deposits on everything. That's the only way to deal with the problem post-pandemic: make everyone from the producer to the consumer pay the real, total cost of dealing with plastic upfront, and aim for a zero-waste society.