As we entered 2020, we optimistically looked at how to make it the greenest year yet. Then came the curveball of Covid-19. Initially, the impact on the environment was a positive one. As nations locked down, there was a drastic drop in pollution and carbon emissions.
But environmentalists have despaired at the resurgence of single-use plastics and a slow-down on policies aimed at reducing plastic waste. Is this simply an interruption in otherwise positive progress? Or are plastics back – and here to stay?
A ban on reusable cups
Coffee chains around the world had started to acknowledge the coffee cup crisis. Notoriously challenging to recycle, disposable coffee cups had earned themselves a bad reputation. More consumers were being encouraged to bring reusable cups instead. But citing hygiene risks at the start of the pandemic, many coffee shops and cafes banned reusable cups and reverted to disposable.
It’s not just single-use cups that made a comeback. Individually wrapped plastic straws, plastic bottles, individual condiment packets and single-use cutlery all returned.
The problem with PPE
Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, is a term we’ve all become familiar with. Most of it is single-use, meaning it’s headed for disposal after one use. It’s been crucial in protecting our frontline workers against the risks of coronavirus.
But the use of PPE hasn’t been restricted to medical staff and carers. Latex gloves and single-use masks used by the public have been littering the streets and oceans. The World Health Organisation recommends fabric masks for social distancing. But to be truly plastic-free, it needs to be made with a woven fabric that can be easily recycled.
The introduction of hygiene screens
To reduce droplet transmission of Covid-19, many shops, restaurants and offices installed plastic hygiene screens. In the UK, Perspex reported a 300 per cent increase in its acrylic sheet production. Although these screens are not single-use, when they’re no longer needed, they’ll need to be disposed of appropriately and not sent to landfill.
The reintroduction of plastic bags
When the pandemic struck, the UK government suspended the 5p plastic bag fee for online supermarket deliveries. Having declined over several years, plastic bags had surged back by spring 2020. The same happened in the US, where plastic bag bans were temporarily lifted. But unlike other aspects of plastic pollution, an increase in plastic bag usage looks to be short-term.
Increased demand for packaged food
While the Food Standards Agency insist contracting Covid-19 from food is very unlikely, WRAP believe that sales of packaged goods, mainly fruit and vegetables, are significantly higher. As we move through and past the pandemic, the hope is that there will be more focus on some exciting innovations in food packaging, including soluble, edible and compostable solutions.
A rise in takeaway food
With restaurants closed or restricted, takeaways have surged. Environmental consultants Nextek said, “Most of the packaging will be single-use and will be either plastic and water-proofed paper and cardboard. Much of this will be in contact with food at the end of its use and most likely will be dropped into bins destined for landfill.” Takeaway food packaging, like general food packaging, needs urgent focus to make it easily recyclable.
Will 2021 be greener?
Post-pandemic, there’s hope that green policies to reduce single-use plastics and encourage green innovations will have a renewed focus. Whether there will be seismic shifts in behaviour with continued reduced air and road travel remains to be seen.
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