Single-use plastic in the COVID-19 pandemic

An unforeseen consequence of the pandemic is the rise of single-use plastics. Why has this happened, and what can we do to prevent this now that we are starting to come out of lockdown?

What’s the problem?

The dramatic increase in plastic waste the pandemic has created, marks a step back in our fight against plastic pollution. Priorities have shifted since the start of COVID-19, and countries have delayed policies that aim to reduce plastic. Whilst some of this waste is unavoidable, such as single-use medical equipment and PPE in the healthcare industry, others can be avoided. The biggest threats include:

  • PPE: With everyone obliged to wear face coverings, disposable masks are now polluting the streets, canals, rivers and oceans. PPE can’t be recycled through traditional recycling facilities, so whilst its use increased rapidly, it won’t disappear so quickly.
  • Takeaway containers: Food deliveries have skyrocketed by 250%. Whilst we encourage supporting local businesses, it’s undeniable that food delivery generates mountains of plastic waste. We have to weigh up the costs to the planet of these single-use containers. 
  • Disposable coffee cups: At least 2.5 billion coffee cups were thrown away per year in the UK before the pandemic. Reusable instead of disposable coffee cups have been a great alternative to prevent plastic pollution but have largely been banned from coffee  shops for safety reasons, resulting in even more cups getting thrown away.
  • Online deliveries: With non-essential shops shut, online shopping has boomed. The UK Government has suspended their plastic bag fee for online deliveries, and online supermarket deliveries have doubled since the start of the pandemic, resulting in huge amounts of plastic packaging. 

What can we do? 

Whilst it’s important to identify the problems, it’s even more important to highlight the solutions. Here are some changes we can make going forward.

  • PPE Recycling: With over a billion items of PPE distributed across the globe to maintain safe work environments, proactive steps need to be taken to manage this waste stream.  Through Terracycle®’s Zero Waste Box™ system, disposable safety equipment is sorted and processed to ensure nothing goes to landfill, before being recycled into new materials. To find out more click here. 
  • Bring Your Own (BYO) reusables: Over 115 health experts have signed a statement assuring retailers and consumers that reusables are safe during the pandemic as long as basic hygiene and social distancing measures are maintained. Coffee shops have now taken initiatives to safely accept reusable again, with some able to fill up a reusables cup without ever touching it. 
  • Tackling packaging: Many restaurants have already found alternative solutions to the plastic they generate by using biodegradable and compostable packaging. Retailers, brands and the logistics industry are also exploring these options, alongside plastic recycling and reuse models. If you are looking for a new way to shop without generating waste, Loop delivers everyday essentials in durable zero-waste packaging that is cleaned and refilled to be reused. Some alternative options for sustainable online food shopping are Oddbox, Zero Waste Bulk Foods and Milk&More

 

Many companies have pledged to eliminate single-use plastic, and move to 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic by 2025. Even though the pandemic crisis has delayed these goals, the current increase in plastic use must be a temporary solution. 

In 2021 and beyond, the demand for plastics with limited recycling capability will continue to exist in hospitals, healthcare as well as publicly. Whilst they are necessary for essential items, moving away from single-use must become our focus once again. By making more mindful decisions, and getting a little creative when it comes to reusables versus disposables we can, ultimately, move to circularity regardless of the pandemic.

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