COVID-19 and the looming plastics pandemic

By Frithjof Laubinger and Nikhil Varghese, Circular Economy and Waste Team, OECD Environment Directorate

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Image credit: Shutterstock / DeawSS

During the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, the city was dealing with more than 240 tons of medical waste a day, a six-fold increase over the amount being treated before the outbreak. Improperly discarded single-use facemasks and gloves have already been found at beaches of remote islands and floating at sea, adding to the already chronic problem of marine plastic litter and revealing the shocking speed at which the recent shift in human behaviour impacts the environment.

Responses to the health crisis led to a rise in plastics consumption and waste generation in a number of sectors – well beyond the medical sector – and put pressure on the environmentally sound handling, treatment and disposal of this waste. At the same time, as more household plastic waste was being generated, less was recycled. The risk of recycling workers contracting the virus prompted several municipalities to temporarily put a halt on separate collection and sorting, directing more waste to incineration or landfills.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread at different rates around the world, the crisis is generating its own short and long-term challenges for waste management, recycling, and the circular economy transition. It is expected that many of the concerning behavioural or policy responses are likely to be temporary, but there is a risk that some may stick and may set back recent efforts to tackle plastic pollution.

Many initiatives to reduce plastics were reversed or halted in response to the crisis…

With sanitary concerns at the top of people’s minds, the pandemic has brought about a resurgence of single-use plastics, amidst worries about the virus clinging to reusable bags, cups and straws. Policy initiatives to reduce plastic use were reversed, halted or delayed in several countries. A number of national and sub-national governments put in place waivers or delays on bans on single-use plastic bags, which were perceived as unsanitary. For instance, in the United States, state governors of New York, Maine and California temporarily repealed or delayed their planned ban on plastic bags and the UK government temporarily dropped its 5 pence charge on plastic bags for deliveries, with the intent to “reduce risk of contamination”.

Other authorities went even further and temporarily banned or strongly discouraged the use of reusable plastic bags (e.g. Massachusetts, Illinois and New Hampshire). Scotland and Slovakia delayed the implementation of their respective deposit return schemes by one year to allow businesses more time to respond to the pandemic.

Major brands also rolled back their waste reduction initiatives during the height of the pandemic. Starbucks, Tim Hortons and Dunkin’ Donuts suspended reusable container programs and restaurants and food stores were limited to take-out and delivery with single-use packaging. Also in supermarkets, consumers opted increasingly for plastic-wrapped products.

In this context, a number of lobby groups have taken the opportunity to lobby for single-use plastic products. For instance, the European group for Plastic Converters (EuPC) published a statement demanding a rollback on bans on single-use plastics and a delay in the implementation of the EU Single-Use Plastic Directive, citing the sanitary benefits of single-use plastics. Similarly, the US Plastics Industry Association requested the US Department of Health and Human Services to speak out against plastic bag bans.

… but the scientific evidence behind these initiatives is weak

The science behind shifting to single-use plastics as a measure to reducing the spread of COVID-19 currently remains very weak. Whilst some studies warn against the potentially elevated transfer of germs and micro-organisms through reusable shopping bags, initial research indicates that COVID-19 also stays active on plastic surfaces for up to 3 days and significantly longer than on cardboard for example. Single-use plastic items may therefore be just as much of a carrier agent as their reusable alternatives, depending on how each of these products is used. Reusable options that are washed regularly may not necessarily lead to an elevated risk of exposure. In fact, the virus has been shown to survive less time on alternative materials such as paper, suggesting that plastic substitutes may even be safer in some instances.

In a context of great uncertainty, an argument can of course be made to apply such measures based on the precautionary principle – particularly in the short-term, while scientific evidence is weak. However, common sense suggests that any precautionary measure taken to reducing the spread of COVID-19 should only be temporary, unless or until scientific evidence suggests otherwise.

Governments must ensure temporary measures do not become permanent

While many of the recent measures appear to be intended as temporary, there is a risk that they could become permanent. This could lead to significant impacts on the environment with arguably limited or no associated benefits for public health or the economy. More generally, COVID-19 could set back efforts by governments and industry to tackle plastic pollution, resulting in a delayed or slow transition towards sustainable lifestyles and a more circular economy.

Furthermore, even if precautionary measures that promote single-use plastics are rapidly lifted when the crisis is well behind us, they could still result in lasting changes to consumer behaviour. Hence, it will be important to increase consumer awareness around the importance of reducing plastic production, consumption and waste.

Whilst the protection of human health is the main priority in the current crisis, wider impacts, such as those on the environment, should also be factored into decision-making. For many years, the OECD has been an active promoter of policy discussions aimed at reducing the negative environmental impacts of plastic production, use and waste. Our recent work includes analyses of markets for recycled plastics, policies that aim to prevent the generation of single-use plastics waste and to mitigate the leakage of microplastics into the environment, and criteria and considerations to design more sustainable plastics. The OECD also highlights what countries are doing to tackle plastic pollution in the ocean. The forthcoming OECD Global Plastics Outlook will consolidate these and more issues into a major report and provide policy guidance to support countries in their efforts towards a more sustainable plastics economy.

To keep up to date on forthcoming OECD work on plastics, you can subscribe to the Environment Newsletter.

Further reading

OECD Work on Resource Efficiency and the Circular Economy (RE-CIRCLE)

OECD Work on Oceans and Ocean pollution

Working Paper: Policy approaches to incentivise sustainable plastic design

Report: Improving Markets for Recycled Plastics

Report: Extended Producer Responsibility: Updated Guidance for Efficient Waste Management

OECD Workshop on Reducing Marine Plastic Litter

OECD Workshop on Microplastics from Synthetic Textiles

OECD Workshop on Microplastics from Tyre Wear

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