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Tackling Waste in a Post-COVID World: Are Single-Use Plastics Here to Stay?

China’s 2017 announcement that it would ban the import of plastic waste

In recent years, awareness around the plastic waste crisis has grown, with emerging evidence, consumer demands, and extensive media coverage putting significant pressure on governments to take action, and businesses to make major public commitments to reduce plastic waste.

The global issue surrounding plastic waste is too big to be ignored. Research from the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ indicates that 11 million metric tons of plastic flowed into oceans in 2016, and this number is projected to be 29 million metric tons in 2040. The same research found that 40% of today’s global plastic waste ends up in the environment. And, single-use plastics are the main culprit.

Single-use plastic products are often disposed of improperly, coupled with the challenges faced by many municipal waste management systems to achieve high recovery rates. The result is massive amounts of waste that we often forget about once our take-out containers hit the garbage bin. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, global decision-makers were beginning to make real progress towards eliminating single-use plastics. However, many of these gains were lost when the pandemic hit, as reusable items like grocery bags and coffee cups were abandoned over fears of virus transmission. Instead, their single-use counterparts came back with a vengeance as a way to limit human-to-human contact.

While it doesn’t appear likely that single-use plastics are here to stay at current levels, progress toward reducing their usage will certainly be delayed. Change is still possible if governments, enterprises and consumers are willing to collaborate on innovative ways to address this global crisis and get progress back on track. To understand how to move forward, it’s useful to first look at where the world has been.

Pre-Pandemic Progress

In recent years, awareness around the plastic waste crisis has grown, with emerging evidence, consumer demands, and extensive media coverage putting significant pressure on governments to take action, and businesses to make major public commitments to reduce plastic waste.

China’s 2017 announcement that it would ban the import of plastic waste from around the world was a catalyst for change – and the world took notice. China has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste imports since 1992, and countries like the United States, which largely depended on China to take its plastic waste, saw their plastic recycling programs disrupted and suddenly had to rethink their approach to waste management. As a result of China’s ban, much of that waste was diverted to other Asian countries including Thailand, which has one of the highest per capita rates of plastic waste. This prompted the country to take action with a single-use plastics ban of its own. In North America, Canada announced it would ban some single-use plastics in 2021. And local action was taken in the US with states like California and Massachusetts eliminating, or working to eliminate, certain plastics.

The Impact of COVID-19

With the onset of COVID-19, countries put plastic-related policy on the backburner. Part of the global response discouraged the use of many reusable products in an effort to slow the spread. This caused restrictions to be lifted on single-use plastic bags and food containers, prompting these products to make a comeback in places where they were being phased out. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) has only added to plastic waste. Everything from face shields to latex gloves and masks were being produced and disposed of at exponential rates. Much of that waste hasn’t been recycled or properly disposed of, severely hampering efforts to reduce the amount of plastics in the environment. Examples of the virus’s impact can be seen in the following countries:

  • Thailand – A report citing the Thailand Environmental Institute found that 1.5 million face masks are being disposed of every day in the country – with 150 tons of waste being produced each day in Bangkok alone. This is likely having a major impact on Thailand’s efforts to reduce plastic waste.
  • Canada – While officials are sticking by their planned ban on some single-use plastics announced last year, the CBC reports that the exact timing and details of its rollout have yet to be determined as the COVID-19 pandemic plays out.

Moving Forward

What needs to happen in order to regain progress toward reducing the use of single-use plastics? Governments, businesses and NGOs can build back momentum together by continuing to focus on three key areas: innovation, waste management and policy reforms, and evidence-based decision-making. And this must be done within the parameters of our Next Normal – where depending on single-use plastics is not necessary, and economies are rebuilt to optimise reusables and design-out waste. Let’s take a closer look at those areas requiring action:

While it may seem that the pandemic has set back the movement surrounding single-use plastics, we believe the ripple effects of COVID-19 have the potential to accelerate innovative approaches to tackling the problem. Governments and enterprises can take this opportunity to consider innovative designs of circular materials and value chains.

For example, Deloitte Canada’s sustainability team is working with BASF to improve the circularity of plastic value chains through blockchain technology. We can continuously challenge ourselves to consider how non-plastic (e.g. wood fibers) or recycled plastic materials can be used to safely achieve the same product outputs as single-use plastics. The opportunity for system-changing innovation is now, as consumers are increasingly looking for new, environmentally friendly alternatives and governments are struggling to tackle the sheer volumes of plastic waste.

Much of today’s plastic waste exists because it was disposed of improperly. Deloitte Canada produced a report last year, for Environment and Climate Change Canada, which showed that little of what goes into the waste system is properly recycled, with 87 percent of plastic waste ending up in landfills or the environment. That represents nearly $6 billion (US) in lost opportunity. To further complicate this issue, consumers in Canada can purchase certified compostable products (such as plates), but not all municipalities have the facilities necessary to actually compost those materials.

At a time when boosting economies is a priority, governments must respond to stakeholder pressure to build-back sustainably. This means introducing policy reforms to reduce the amount of virgin plastic in the market, and improve waste management systems to effectively recycle all types of plastic waste in a way that can stimulate a secondary market for re-use. These changes can create a ripe ecosystem for businesses to innovate, as discussed above.

When it comes to innovation or new ways of thinking around single-use plastics in the Next Normal, it is critical for governments and businesses to make decisions based on scientific evidence published by NGOs, academia and other research institutions.

Although it is impossible to quantify, fear likely played a role in the resurgence of single-use plastics (for non-medical uses) as the virus spread. However, recent studies have shown that single-use plastic products may not necessarily be any safer. In fact, more than 125 health experts from around the world signed a statement defending the safety of reusables amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

The Time Is Now

The plastics crisis will outlive the COVID-19 crisis. Some of the progress made before the pandemic has been pulled back, and a “reawakening” or “reeducation” period may be needed to get the world re-focussed on the problem. The pandemic may accelerate innovation in solving the single-use plastics issue, but it requires the global community to seize the opportunity. The solutions mentioned above cannot exist in isolation, but rather they must work collaboratively to make a significant impact. Perhaps those developments, combined with the resurgence of the projects and policies that were derailed by COVID-19, will put the world in an even stronger position to limit or replace single-use plastics, reducing waste on a global scale.