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Pandemic demanded plastics, but not the recycled kind

Manufacturers worked overtime to supply disposable PPE, take-out food containers and packaging required for all those home deliveries

Face masks and plastic debris in the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt.
Face masks and plastic debris in the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt. (Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Efforts to combat coronavirus spread have produced a plastics surge.

That ramped-up plastic production provides fresh impetus to proposals aimed at curbing how much of that material gets dumped into the environment.

Manufacturers have been working overtime to supply disposable personal protective equipment, takeout food containers and packaging required for all those home deliveries.

Officials in some areas last year also delayed or rolled back restrictions on single-use plastic bags.

“Even where we had made strides to have items and packages be reusable, they went back to being disposable because people felt that was safer,” said Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

At the same time plastic usage increased, pandemic-depressed oil demand lowered the production cost of new “virgin” plastic. That further undermined the already shaky economic fundamentals of plastic recycling.

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The marine conservation group OceansAsia estimated in a report that more than 1.5 billion masks entered the oceans in 2020, based on a global production estimate of 52 billion masks and a loss rate of 3 percent.

But the number could be higher than that based on studies that show protecting everyone in the world requires even more masks. According to the group, single-use face masks are difficult to recycle because of their composition and risks of contamination.

‘Existential threat’

The report noted that plastic production had been increasing before the pandemic and that every year millions of tons enter the oceans, endangering mammals, turtles, seabirds and fish.

“Marine plastic pollution poses an existential threat to marine wildlife and ecosystems,” according to the report.

Environmental advocates have called on President Joe Biden to take steps that include using the federal government’s purchasing power to eliminate single-use plastic items, cracking down on pollution from plastics manufacturers and rejecting permits for new or expanded plastics production facilities.

Capitol Hill lawmakers are eager to get into the fray. Among the proposals under discussion is legislation introduced in the previous Congress and expected to be brought back this session by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif. Its provisions include requiring producers to support recycling programs, creating a nationwide beverage container refund program and pausing new plastics facilities.

“The plastics waste problem was already a crisis before the pandemic began, and I am deeply concerned that the increase in single-use waste over the past year has only accelerated the depth of the problem worldwide,” Lowenthal said in a statement.

No mandates, please

The industry opposes government mandates aimed at curtailing plastic production, which it characterized as a hero for protecting public health over the past year.

“The pandemic has certainly demonstrated the value of plastics in health care, sanitation and safety,” said Rob Benedict, petrochemicals and midstream vice president at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. “We have seen petrochemical manufacturers work overtime and adapt operations to supply more of the raw materials for PPE like masks, gloves and hospital gowns protecting first responders, health care personnel and other essential workers, and there is continued demand for these products.”

It would be a mistake to back off production given plastic’s role in mitigating the spread of disease, said Plastics Industry Association spokesman Brendan Thomas.

“Yes, there’s more plastic,” Thomas said. “There’s more plastic because it’s the best material for a wide variety of uses, including safe, sanitary food packaging that people also turn to because they’re not going out.”

The real problem, per the industry’s diagnosis, lies with poor waste management, particularly in countries overseas.

“We fully recognize the necessity to improve waste management infrastructure here and around the world,” Thomas said.

Waste management and recycling could represent some common ground.

Dominique Browning, director and co-founder of Moms Clean Air Force, said she would like to see Democrats include a big push to bolster recycling capacity in any infrastructure package they move this session. But Browning also expressed concern about new natural gas-fueled plastics facilities and said the problem is so significant it will require a truly systemic approach.

“Plastic can be a lifesaving material, and we need to treat it like a precious resource, not like a disposable piece of garbage,” Browning said.

Hoover said that because recycling plastic is inherently difficult, as much as possible needs to be prevented from ever entering the waste stream.

Not just PPE

She said she understands the need for personal protective equipment and people should do what they need to be safe and healthy.

Rather than focusing on PPE, Hoover highlighted the rampant use of plastic in food and beverage packaging or grocery bags that are easily replaced by more sustainable alternatives.

“Medical applications, automotive applications, things that help people be healthier or safer, that’s where we should be prioritizing plastic,” Hoover said. “You don’t need plastic to take your groceries from the store to your house and then throw the bag away. There’s just no reason you have to use plastic for that.”

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While the pandemic has increased plastic use, Hoover said it also might have increased public awareness of the issue as people see just how much packaging is coming into their homes and having to be thrown out.

Federal legislation could include incentives for companies that reduce their plastic waste.

Hoover cited the case of restaurants that shove handfuls of utensils and napkins into takeout and delivery bags — even though their customers will be eating at home with their own cutlery and condiments.

“You don’t need 8 million napkins,” Hoover said. “How many packets of soy sauce can you use?”

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