Plastic Pollution Grows Worse During Pandemic
By Romero Halloway
At the outset, Covid-19 appeared to be an unexpected boon to many environmental movements. Carbon emissions in 2020 were at some of the lowest levels in decades. A lack of demand in manufacturing led to a reduction in pollution in some countries, most notably China. Wildlife advocates thrilled at the news that some Southeast Asian countries would shutter their wet markets while making wildlife tracking illegal.
But one area of environmental outcomes has grown worse during the pandemic – plastic pollution.
Plastic production grew in the time of Covid-19 despite increasing awareness about the material’s deleterious environmental effects including its propensity to end up floating in large masses in the ocean and strewn across planet Earth’s beaches.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) said during its year-end report that plastic resins were the only part of the nation’s considerable chemical portfolio to grow in 2020 – a year when the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant lockdowns curtailed economic growth in nearly every quarter of the global economy.
Despite the headwinds created by an unprecedented manufacturing slowdown in America and elsewhere, plastic resin production increased by approximately 1% in the year, likely from the need to manufacture personal protective equipment and changing modes of consumption during Covid.
“American chemistry is playing a vital role in the global fight against COVID-19,” said Kevin Swift, an ACC economist.
Swift predicted that plastic resins will be the fastest-growing part of the chemical portfolio at least through 2030.
In 2020, at the height of the coronavirus, manufacturers around the globe produced about 129 billion face masks and 65 billion pairs of plastic gloves every month. Many of these plastics ended up in the ocean, where their spindly nature means that sea turtles often mistake these items from their preferred prey – jellyfish.
While personal protective equipment is clearly essential, some other developments during the times of Covid-19 are concerning to those dedicated to easing the scourge of plastic pollution.
Specifically, misinformation around how the coronavirus spreads, with the early focus on transmission through surface contamination, meant plastic bag use for trips to the grocery store became typical once again.
Ivy Schlegel, a campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace, said the plastics industry used the early days of the coronavirus to promote their products as a viable alternative to reusable items susceptible to infection.
“[Plastic industry executives] were misusing a lot of studies to make people afraid and think they were going to contract coronavirus and die from bringing reusable bags to the store,” Schlegel told Frontline.
Environmentalists are concerned the trends in place before the advent of the coronavirus, such as avoiding single-use plastics in daily activities, are in retreat, giving industry representatives a window in which to promote their products to the detriment of local ecologies.
Look no further than California for evidence.
In 2016, California became one of the first states to ban single-use plastic bags in an effort to incentivize shoppers to bring their own reusable bags to the grocery store. Before the bag ban, California used 500 million single-use plastic bags per month.
The ban meant shoppers either brought their own bags or paid a 10-cent fee for the use of paper bags.
But in April, amid fears over surface contamination, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order reversing the plastic bag ban for a 60-day period. While the period has since lapsed, environmentalists are urging state, local and national governments to have a more coordinated plan to achieve public health goals that are in concert with environmental sustainability.
Plastic bags weren’t the only plastic product to experience a bump from the pandemic. The emphasis on takeout, which was a lifeline to many small restaurants, also meant increased use of single-use plastics across the board for consumers. Starbucks, which banned personal cups in March 2020, waited until August to reverse the ban, creating a greater emphasis on single-use beverage products through last summer.
The rise in e-commerce as a result of social distancing protocols has led to a concomitant increase in plastic packaging. Technavio, a market research firm, recently estimated air-filled plastic products used in packaging will grow $1.16 billion by 2024 because of steady demand for e-commerce packing, much of which ends up in the landfill or environment.
Price pressures on the oil and gas industry also contributed to a rise in use of plastics across the economy. Because the price of oil fell so precipitously in 2020 as a result of falling demand and consumers staying at home rather than using energy to roam about, the price of producing new plastic fell relative to other more sustainable alternative materials.
All of these forces combined to increase plastic production.
The plastics industry says greater regulation is not the solution.
“We don’t have a plastics problem; we have a plastic waste problem,” said Joshua Baca of the American Chemistry Council, citing the pandemic-era rise of plastic shopping bags, masks and syringes.
Proper collection and recycling of plastic waste could alleviate environmental concerns over their increased use, industry representatives say.
But environmentalists point to inefficiencies with plastic waste collection and note that plastic recycling fell significantly in 2020 due to difficulties in international trade and the aforementioned price drop in making virgin plastic.
Making a plastic bottle from recycled rather than virgin material is about 83% to 93% more expensive, according to market analysts at the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services.
In 2017, Jenna Jambeck and other researchers found that a little less than 10% of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste generated around the globe has ever been recycled.
It’s why Jambeck and others in the environmental community are skeptical of industry claims about the efficacy of recycling.
It’s also why, we here at Littorary, are devising a product to replace single-use plastics. With more sustainability-minded products in the marketplace, we will be able to collectively navigate future public health difficulties without such exorbitant cost to the environment.
Our team is committed to making durable and sophisticated products that rival the convenience of plastics without the environmental burden. We believe technology and design innovations can revolutionize how Americans and the world consume products in a more environmentally responsible manner. Please stay tuned to our website, blog, and upcoming Kickstarter page as we unveil a product fully capable of providing the experience and sustainability that will consign the concept of disposable plastics to the garbage heap of history.