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Coronavirus pandemic threatens to undo progress on plastic pollution

Environmentalists and recyclers express concerns that hard-fought gains are being rapidly reversed as the sustainability debate is "parked."
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A pedestrian carries plastic shopping bags in New York on March 31, 2019.Natan Dvir / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the plastic bag was in retreat.

Single-use plastics had become the subject of aggressive — and increasingly successful — restrictions. Consumers were becoming mindful of the need to reduce the amount of plastic they used. Companies were switching to more sustainable materials.

Now, rollbacks of regulations, sanitary concerns and the plummeting prices of new plastics threaten to undo years of progress.

"The sustainability debate has been parked for the year," said Rob Gilfillan, a packaging expert with the energy research company Wood Mackenzie.

Recyclers have been hit particularly hard. The recycling industry needs to turn a profit to be able to reprocess some of the plastic people toss into their blue bins. That means selling its reclaimed plastic as a commodity to companies that want to make something new.

But plunging oil prices — the raw material used to make plastic — means recyclers are struggling to compete in a market in which new "virgin" plastic is cheaper to buy than recycled plastic.

"Every day it's harder to make new sales when the virgin keeps going down," said Eadaoin Quinn, director of business development and procurement at EFS Plastics, a recycler with facilities in Listowel, Ontario, and Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

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The pandemic has "created a base for brands or consumers to not be as focused on those environmental goals and really just to focus on whatever's cheaper," she added.

Following lobbying from the plastics industry and requests from grocers, California recently became the latest state to suspend its single-use bag ban, citing sanitary concerns over reusable bags. The legislation also mandated that reusable bags sold by retailers needed to consist of at least 40 percent recycled content.

After the ban was lifted, "manufacturers went straight back to virgin plastic literally overnight," Quinn said.

Even before the pandemic, recyclers were struggling to find a market for plastics like LDPE, the soft, stretchy plastic used in products like grocery bags and bread bags. Until recently, much of the material collected in Western recycling programs was exported for recycling to countries in Asia where labor and environmental standards are lower.

But awareness of the environmental consequences of importing U.S. trash led countries like China and Malaysia to ban imports, making U.S.-based markets — like California's — more important than ever to promote recycling.

Just 8.4 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The rest ends up disposed of in landfills, incinerated — contributing to harmful greenhouse gas emissions — or polluting oceans, rivers and other parts of the environment.

Before the pandemic, public awareness had driven some brands and retailers to use less packaging or materials that are more sustainable. Some items, like fresh produce, were increasingly made available for purchase loose without packaging.

In response, the plastics industry has long argued that its products promote food hygiene and safety. Although the science around plastic and the coronavirus is murky, the pandemic has helped the perceived safety credentials to gain traction and drive consumers back to plastic.

"We've seen the whole thing turn on its head," Gilfillan said. "We think in the U.S. it could be up to 8 percent growth this year in flexible packaging.

"The need for packaging has outweighed the moral dilemma of the sustainability of packaging materials," he added.

Even though she points out the important role plastic plays in medical supplies and protective equipment to fight the pandemic, Quinn believes the industry is trying to exploit the crisis to wind the clock back on the past five years of measures to combat plastic pollution.

Environmentalists echo the fear. Doug Cress, vice president of conservation at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit in Washington, said legislation rollbacks are "worrisome" and a "carefully calculated lobbying move" on the part of the industry.

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Like California, other states have been lifting or delaying plastic bag bans since the coronavirus crisis took hold. The CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, Tony Radoszewski, wrote in March to the Department of Health and Human Services to argue that single-use plastics are the safest option.

Cress said that's not the case.

"All the science we've seen to date indicates COVID-19 sticks longest to plastic," Cress said, "so, really, it's a misinformation campaign at a time when fear, uncertainty and confusion is high."

The Plastics Industry Association didn't respond to a request for an interview.

How quickly the recent gains by the industry are reversed, if ever, remains unclear. But Quinn is quick to stress that businesses and legislators have the power "to change the marketplace."

"If they stick to their commitments, recycling will be fine," she said. "But if they postpone them and virgin prices keep going down, it could be a pivotal point, and we won't be able to be around in a few years."

Cress remains optimistic that we will adjust to the "new normal" while realizing that there are "better choices than mounds and mounds of single-use plastics."

"Our goal is no new plastic enters the ocean by 2030," he said. "I still think we can still make it."