Updated: Mar 27
Long ago, during airport crisis management training, I learned the importance of allowing first responders to manage the emergency, and to focus my efforts on 'What next?' 'What can I do now to advance the recovery phase?
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded me of this exercise. Like the rest of the world, the first thing I have to do is wait it out.
So, as I sit here waiting - and thinking about both planes and pandemics - my mind has turned to what next and, in particular, what's next for plastic?
Change in PCR-supply
With 'social distancing' the phrase on everyone's lips, consumer purchasing - and place of consumption - has changed dramatically.
A U.S. study tracked foot-traffic patterns in 4 US cities between 19 Feb and 13 Mar. Over that time there was a significant decrease in people going to airports, cinemas and eat-in restaurant chains. People were beginning to stay home even before 'stay-at-home' orders commenced. Staying at home transfers consumption patterns. Over just 3 days in March, attempts to stock-up saw foot-traffic to grocery stores grow by 19%; and to warehouse stores by 39%.
These stores also saw online sales skyrocket, with one study showing that between 12 March and 15 March, purchases increased 151% with average order value up by 39%. In the next quarter, grocery store sales are predicted to continue to increase between 32-62%.
While these figures are U.S. based, the phenomenon is being replicated globally, resulting in a staggering increase in plastic packaged goods that will shortly become domestic plastic packaging waste.
Adding a layer of complexity is the fact that much of the increased plastic waste is likely to be hard-to-recycle or non-recyclable materials:
We have all seen the pictures of empty grocery shelves and freezers. People are stocking up on non-perishables and long-lasting-perishables, such as frozen fruits and vegetables, long-life milk, grains, and other shelf-stable items. It’s understandable. Problem is, these products tend to be packaged in plastic which is low on the PCR-plastics market recovery list.
So, with even more waste plastic of little or no value in the domestic waste stream, can existing infrastructure (and contracts) manage?
Developed countries, (who are still dealing with the recycling market fallout from China having closed its doors to plastic waste) will need to consider the impacts that increased domestic waste volume will have on collection, sorting, and, in particular the quality of recycled plastics. Waste contracts that simply promote volume throughput tend to result in low quality recycling output that is hard to sell, so it stockpiles.
In developing nations, with little infrastructure, the ability to stockpile is lower, and any increase in domestic plastic waste will flow directly to the environment. If the plastic waste has little or no recovered value, that is exactly where it will stay.
People before Planet
The global priority is saving lives and defeating CV-19. People are the focus (rightly) and not plastic use.
As a result, there has been a swift shift in attitudes towards single-use plastics. The most obvious and visible example of increased plastic use is in medical care, from hospital protective gear to face masks on the streets, with the latter meant for single use. But there is also the strong return of plastic take-away containers, as restaurants forced to close for seated diners, survive now on take-away meals.
The imperative is always personal health. Unfortunately, this can go to extremes. A simple scan of the internet will show some interesting applications of COVID-19 plastic protection: there’s Plastic Buckethead Woman; PET Bottle Face Mask Man; Sandwich Bag Traveller and – most poignantly– Cling-film Wrapped Nurse.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found the virus can live 2-3 days on plastic. Experts recommended caution, in the form of disinfecting surfaces. However, some people managed to make the precarious leap from: if-the-virus-can-live-on-plastic, then reusable shopping bags should be avoided, to: bring back the good ol’ disposable (single-use) bags.
Fear of CV-19 has the power to shift behaviour - in this last case absurdly leading to increased single use plastic, and early disposal of the feared germ-carrying bags.
I’m not the first person to suggest that our world has changed for keeps. Shifts in plastic usage and impacts on waste streams are inevitable. So, while emergency responders deal with the pandemic, my focus is on how we prepare for plastic post COVID-19.
Dealing with more domestic plastic waste
The starting point has to be local. BAU will not suffice in the face of such massively changed consumer habits. So, how will local governments (and their contractors) adjust their services to meet the challenges? What will recyclers do in the face of decreased commercial collections and increased domestic waste – with lower quality plastic available for recycling?
Right now, while the world is subdued, there’s an enormous opportunity for government at all levels to get ahead of the game, and to start planning for the new paradigm. Local governments, working with recyclers and community groups could explore Circular Economy thinking around the new scenarios; review learnings from the impacts of China’s plastic imports ban; determine the likely waste flows by plastic type; ensure recycling of high value plastics; and actively seek out second-life markets for plastics that are expected in volume.
Ensuring quality of recyclables
Knowing that a shift in plastic waste streams is inevitable, it’s time to stop thinking of plastic as waste, and view it for its economic value.
But the value of scrap plastic reduces dramatically when the product is contaminated (dirty and mixed) – and contamination increases relative to waste volumes.
This is why developed countries should be talking more about quality of recovery rather than volume throughput in their CE discussions and contracts. In other regions, like Asia, mechanisms that reward early, clean collection will result in a stream of material that will have value in second-life markets.
The Ultimate in What’s Next?
COVID-19, or at least our need to stay at home, is cited as reducing pollution – CO2 and NO2 emissions at least. However, plastic is proving its benefits in health care, food safety and daily life, over and over again. Usage has not decreased, so plastic pollution continues at the same (or possibly higher) rate, despite the massive changes we’ve made in our lives in the face of the virus.
Make the conversation change
Now is the time to challenge the thinking, and plan for change.
We could return to debating single-use plastics policies and operate in the margins where we use terms like recyclable to mask the true fate of the plastic… OR we can take the greatest plastic learning that COVID-19 has to offer us and change the conversation.
Unlike polluting emissions, plastic serves a positive purpose to humanity - and it has inherent economic value. Its visible physical existence means that it should be recoverable for a second-life.
Changing the ‘waste’ plastic conversation to one of Circular Economy is essential – which means discussing the economics of plastics in all locations.
If, like me, you want to shift your focus from Pandemics to Possibilities while in ‘wait-time’, The Plastics Circle will be offering free pod and vid casts from next week.
Stay well, stay home, wash your hands - and please stay out of the way of Emergency Responder efforts.
Bucket Head Woman - Twitter; Cling-Wrap Nurse - Malay Mail
Studies, data and projections in this article have been referenced from online sources, including: