Plastic Circular Economy - A Hopeless Dream Post COVID-19?

Published on 12 Aug, 2020

Plastic emerged as a savior during the pandemic; it is the core ingredient of most of the protective gear, due to which its demand has increased. Fear of infection also led to a rise in the use of single-use plastic. Moreover, companies which had pledged to reduce their carbon footprint and recycle plastic are unable to follow through, as its expensive for those impacted by the current economic crisis. Hence, would the dream of a plastic circular economy be dashed to the ground?

In addition to being both a humanitarian and economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be detrimental for the environment. There has been a surge in the use of single-use plastic to manufacture protective gears for healthcare staff and frontline warriors. However, medical waste and disposed personal protective equipment are once again ending up in the ocean, polluting the waters. This could threaten to reverse the progress made till now toward environment-friendly practices and a greener planet.

Plastic – The battle till date
Plastic was labelled as one of the greatest inventions by mankind. This light-weight, durable material enabled the manufacture of life-saving devices, made space travel a reality, and reduced the weight of cars and jets. It is a core ingredient for helmets, incubators, and equipment for clean drinking water. However, it also ends up becoming a key pollutant of the environment. Among the types of plastic, the main culprit has been single-use plastic, which accounts for 40% of plastic produced every year. Most products made from single-use plastic, such as bags and food wrappers, are needed only for a few minutes, but persist for hundreds of years in the environment. Till date, almost 8 million tons of plastic waste have been disposed into the oceans every year.

Understanding the threat it presents, several measures were taken to reduce the consumption of plastic a few years ago. By 2019, as many as 14 countries, including the UK, Taiwan, and New Zealand, had banned single-use plastic, and almost 127 countries were moderating the use of plastic within its borders. Many corporates had also undertaken plastic recycling initiatives as a part of their social responsibility.

However, a gap exists between regulations and actual implementation. Countries have the rules in place without penal action or strong steps for non-compliance. Even for the industries, many countries have imposed the law that a certain percentage of recycled plastic has to be used by companies for their manufacturing operations, but it lacks strict reinforcement. Therefore, even though regulations are present, the results are not reflected.

Plastic recycling – How the countries have fared till now?
In matured economies of Japan and Western Europe, recycling initiatives have shown positive results. However, countries such as the US and Australia and those in the Balkan region are still in the transition phase. Emerging economies such as China and Brazil have the lowest plastic recycling rate.

Country

Plastic recycling rate

Initiative

Western Europe, Japan

Approx. 25–30%

  • Source separation schemes
  • Sorting and processing plastic waste in units
  • Advanced waste management technologies

USA, Australia, Balkan Region

Approx. 10–15%

  • Few plastic source separation schemes
  • Traditional waste management
  • Low-financial-value plastic scrap sent to emerging economies

China, Brazil, India

Approx. 20–60%

  • Manual sorting of plastic
  • Improper handling of plastic at sorting/recycling facilities
  • Old recycling processes; low market value of recycled materials
  • Presence of unregulated landfills and/or dumpsites.
  • Receive low-value plastic scrap from developed economies

Source - United Nations Basel convention report - February 2020

Role of plastic during the COVID-19 pandemic
In 2020, we were hit globally by the COVID-19 pandemic; ironically, plastic became a savior during the crisis. It has many uses in the current scenario, particularly for containing the spread of infection.

  • Polypropylene (a form of plastic) is being used for producing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
  • Special masks, gowns, and gloves, which contain plastic, are being designed to avoid infection from this highly contagious virus.
  • Plastic is being used to manufacture medical devices such as pulse oxygen sensors, blood mentoring equipment, syringes, blood, and fluid bags.
  • It is the main raw material for manufacturing ventilators, which is an essential medical device in the current times.
  • COVID-19 testing kits are primarily made of plastic.
  • All groceries, food, and medicine deliveries are being made using plastic as the outer layer to keep them safe from infection.
  • Hygiene products such as hand sanitizers, tissues, and wipes, the sale of which shot up in the past few months, come in plastic wrapping.

Challenges ahead
While plastic is essential in the current scenario, the exponential increase in its usage has led to tons of medical garbage being disposed into the ocean. As the fury of the pandemic continues, minimization of plastic manufacture and use is highly unlikely. The following challenges lie ahead for us:

  • There would be a rampant increase in the use of plastic across sectors.
  • Ban on single-use plastic across countries would be lifted due to the need of the hour. Cities such as New York and New Jersey have postponed bans that were slated to be effective this year. The UK has also delayed its ban on plastic. Fear of a second wave will ensure that the ban would be delayed for another year as well.
  • Recycling of medical plastic waste would be limited, as they could be contaminated.
  • Decrease in oil prices has made recycling an expensive process. Hence, organizations that are already suffering from the economic consequences of the pandemic have halted their recycling efforts and prefer to produce virgin plastic. Till the oil prices remain subdued, recycling of plastic will not be commercially attractive. Forecasts indicate that recycling will likely remain low for the foreseeable future, thereby threatening the domain.
  • Recycling facilities are worried about exposing their workers to used plastic that could be contaminated. The industry is also facing financial distress due to lockdowns and social distancing measures.
  • The informal sector comprising waste pickers has dwindled in number, as the fear of the virus prevents them from picking up waste and litter.

Apart from the fresh issues resulting from the pandemic, the previous challenges still exist.

At times, different types of plastic components are combined to make products, which makes recycling a problem. Similarly, in certain products, it is difficult to separate the plastic content to recycle. In certain cases, to make the garbage lightweight, companies have started making thinner plastic bottles. However, the use of less plastic reduces the economic viability of recycling.

The road ahead
A behavioral shift is needed to deal with this issue. First and foremost, the casual attitude toward plastic must be avoided. Awareness regarding the environmental hazards caused by plastic needs to be increased. Second, the handling of the material needs to be monitored. Accordingly, the lack of regulations, collection infrastructure, and recycling facilities needs to be addressed. Finally, plastic recycling is a responsibility that needs to be carried ahead by consumers, corporations, and governments together. Hence, it is time to join hands and develop an innovative solution for waste disposal. Let us ensure that this pandemic does not end up causing an irreparable damage to the planet.




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