What COVID-19 has taught us about plastic in the environment

What COVID-19 has taught us about plastic in the environment

June 18, 2020
Michelene Locke

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to grip the world, it has become hard to ignore the role of plastic in keeping us safe, from sneeze screens and face shields to food and protective packaging. With the world having commemorated World Environment Day on 5 June, is it time to ask whether plastic still has a place in a world where a ‘new normal’ requires bold and innovative solutions, writes Michelene Locke, sales director at ITB Flexible Packaging Solutions

Plastic pollution, especially from single-use plastics, is a very real threat to our environment. Studies show that of the 260 million tons of plastic the world produces each year, about 10% ends up in the ocean.

Global plastic production has quadrupled over the past four decades, a 2019 study found, and if the trend continues, the production of plastics will make up 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (by comparison, transportation currently accounts for 15% of emissions).

But it appears that consumers’ consumption of plastic-based products is not changing. As an example, research by the Environmental Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town (UCT) suggests that South Africans use about eight billion plastic bags annually, despite increased levies on the plastic bag and other alternatives being made available.

On top of this, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that plastic may not be the evil force responsible for hurting the environment. Before throwing out the ‘plastic’ baby with the bathwater, consider that throughout the global pandemic, plastics have been the bedrock of medical protective equipment for frontline workers.

Plastics have been at the heart of innovative cross-industry collaborations to combat the virus. Companies like the luxury auto brand Ferrari, for instance, announced it will produce thermoplastic components needed for respiratory valves, while Apple designed plastic face shields for medical professionals and has been shipping millions of them across the USA every week.

We have also seen how cities around the world are reversing bans on single-use plastic during the pandemic. As demand skyrockets for masks, gloves, screens and disposable bags, plastics have become indispensable during the pandemic, primarily because of their versatile, affordable and hygienic properties.

It is precisely because of these properties that plastic bags, historically, replaced paper bags in supermarkets because it was more hygienic and prevented bacterial contamination from meat liquids, which would soak through paper bags.

Given this, what will the world look like post-COVID-19 for plastic and the environment? Has the good work of environmentalists, lobbyists, regulators, consumers, retailers and the plastics industry in finding a viable solution to the issue of plastic pollution, been undone, thanks to the virus? Or will we have to trade-off saving the environment for staying safe? What, if anything, will need to change?

We must now accept that a zero-plastic future is extremely unlikely. The World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that as lockdowns are lifted, we may find our reliance on plastic has increased. It suggests that we may need a global systems-level approach from role players to address the issue of plastic and protect our environment.

Similarly, a report by fund manager Schroders suggests that the best optimal long-term solution lies not in moving away from plastics use altogether – but in fixing existing problems in the plastics economy and moving toward a circular economy, where plastic resources are continually recycled and re-used.

As someone who services the plastic industry, I believe that the pandemic has provided our industry with a fresh opportunity to go back to the drawing board and create more sustainable plastic solutions that are both better for the environment, and still continue to provide benefits to society. We need to re-think plastic packaging and products in such a way that can be easily and safely washed and disinfected for reuse and refills.

This will require reduced amount of plastic to be used, more recycled content and allow for packaging to be reusable. Furthermore, we need new business models and technologies that will see improved waste management and encourage even more recycling. Correcting the existing distortions in waste management is crucial for the health and safety of communities, the environment and the economy.

Most importantly, we need to address behavioral barriers and the perception of re-using and recycling plastic products. Plastic is not inherently bad or evil; it is our behavior around plastic that needs to change. The coronavirus pandemic has taught us this. In some cases, plastic has the least cost to the environment, if it is recycled.

Consumers, therefore, also carry responsibility in the plastic versus environment tale. They need to be better informed and make choices according to the facts. Decisions to move away from plastics can sometimes be made without considering the environmental impact of the alternatives. A ban on all plastics is not necessarily the best response. Instead, current consumer sentiment should be used to fuel discussions about packaging choices and the consequences of alternatives.

These are just some of the ways we need to rethink plastic packaging and ensure that it remains in the circular economy, where it can be reused and recycled.

In conclusion, COVID-19 has provided us with an opportunity to revisit our relationship with plastic, change our behaviors, and rebuild a more environmentally responsible world. The pandemic has shown that people can change their behavior if it is for the health of their families. Given this, we need to carefully relook how we return to a ‘new normal’ that ensures we protect our environment, as well as ourselves.

Michelene Locke is sales director at ITB Flexible Packaging Solutions (ITB), a Novus Holdings company

The rescheduled Plastic Free World Conference & Expo 2020 will take place at Cologne Messe, Germany, on Monday 9 November and Tuesday 10 November. To register for this highly focused, solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com

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