Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, was disappointed. Public health comes first, of course, but as the founder of the grassroots Beyond Plastics project, Enck had her doubts that returning to disposable cups would make anyone safer. Currency, for instance, is a notorious germ-carrier. “Will Starbucks now stop accepting cash?” she says.
These are nervous times for activists working to wean the world off plastics. Until the novel coronavirus started its spread across the globe, 2020 appeared to be a year when meaningful plastic-use restrictions would finally take hold. A growing list of consumer firms had set targets to reduce their reliance on plastic packaging. The virus plays right into the industry’s strong suits: disposability and hygiene. A new report released by BloombergNEF last week found that, in the short run at least, the fears of plastics opponents might be valid. “Concerns around food hygiene due to Covid-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity, undoing some of the early progress made by firms,” it stated.
As consumer taste started to shift against the $40 billion plastics industry, manufacturers added an additional argument to their arsenal: that their products are actually a boon to overall sustainability, despite being petroleum-based, nonbiodegradable, and difficult to recycle.Most of these claims are based on a handful of studies, the most significant of which was done for ACC by Franklin Associates in 2018. It looked at the life cycle of products like water bottles, shrink wrap, and retail shopping bags and concluded that if they were made of alternative materials — say glass or aluminum or textiles — they would require five times the amount energy to manufacture and use more water in the process.
While BNEF said it was too early to know for sure that Covid-19 is affecting plastic demand overall, it did predict that any spike would likely be temporary, and that industry revenues would be flat or even up in the midst of a sharp economic downturn. “In the long term, we do not expect this increased demand to have a significant impact on either plastic demand or circular economy goals,” the report said, referring to a future in which all items are either reused or recycled. A study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection said the virus behind Covid-19 can survive for nine days on plastic surfaces at room temperature.
The plastics industry is seizing the moment. In February, Plastics Industry Association head Tony Radoszewski issued a statement: “As new coronavirus cases are confirmed around the globe, the plastics industry stands ready to assist authorities and public health advocates in making sure our materials and products are on the frontline of combating the spread of coronavirus.”