Though single-use plastics have rebounded sharply since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the poor optics of producing a product that is neither biodegradable nor recyclable may foretell lean times for the materials down the road.
The surge in single-use plastic production has coincided with strenuous efforts of sector lobbyists to label their product as “the hero of coronavirus,” reports Bloomberg Green. “Plastics lobbyists have been everywhere during the pandemic, touting the role their products play in keeping food, health care workers, and families safe.”
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And it seems those efforts are paying off, at least in the short term, with April seeing both Germany’s Ineos Styrolution Group and U.S.-based Trinseo experience “double-digit percentage increases in sales at their food packaging and health care divisions.”
The return to good graces is striking for an industry that seemed like “a pariah” only a few month back, writes Bloomberg. “More than 125 countries have some kind of plastic ban, according to a 2018 report from the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Resources Institute.” In 2018, China refused point blank to take any more of the world’s recycling, and the low cost of raw materials has gutted the global trade in recyclables.
Plastic critics are feeling the blow on the recycling side, too. Even before the pandemic, urban recycling programs across the U.S. “struggled to absorb the excess capacity and were already weakened by the time the coronavirus began to spread,” writes Bloomberg. Small towns like Dalton, Georgia and Fayetteville, Arkansas decided to pause their recycling efforts, thinking that “recycling wasn’t essential or that the potential for used cups and cutlery to transmit the virus to workers posed too big a risk.” Starbucks and other take-out shops banned reusable mugs, and New York State continues to delay a plastic bag ban that was supposed to kick in on March 1.
Such moves are hasty and short-sighted, says Judith Enck, a former regional administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and founder of the grassroots Beyond Plastics project. Currency holds a similar or greater transition risk to a reusable mug, but isn’t being shunned.
“Will Starbucks now stop accepting cash?’” she asks.
Bloomberg adds that while plastics are a critical part of reducing infection risk and “lifting the burden of sterilization” in a public health setting, recent research into COVID-19 transmission has “consistently shown [the virus] remains infectious longer on plastic than on many other surfaces, especially easier-to-recycle cardboard.”
Still, at least one manufacturer is betting big—a bet of US$9.4 billion, to be exact—on a sunny future for single-use plastics, writes Bloomberg Green. The Sunshine Project is a 2,400-acre petrochemical complex under construction in St. James Parish, Louisiana, a region locally known as Cancer Alley. Owned by Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa Plastics Group, the complex’s 14 plants, “all built to last,” will be dedicated to the production of ethylene glycol, polyethylene, and polypropylene—base materials for plastic.
With drivers like Sunshine and other such projects at play, “the world will see plastic production—and plastic pollution—more than double from its current level” by 2039, according to reports from the World Wildlife Fund and the World Economic Forum. Even within a year of the Sunshine plant’s 2019 launch, “the energy required to churn out plastic…will generate 1.34 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, as much as 295 coal-powered plants,” writes Bloomberg, citing estimates from the Center for International Environmental Law.
That the Formosa behemoth may go ahead despite a successful $50-million lawsuit that found the company guilty of illegally dumping plastic pellets and other pollutants into waterways near one of its plants in Point Comfort, Texas, owes to the fact that most people “haven’t demonstrated a real ability to reduce their demand for plastic, and new regulations haven’t changed that,” adds Bloomberg. Lax environmental standards, generous corporate incentives and, of course, easy access to fossil feedstocks aren’t hurting, either.
Still, pandemic spike aside, plenty of campaigners are working—and making progress—on pushing forward more bans on single-use plastics. The European Parliament will restrict single-use plastics in 2021, requiring “nations in the bloc to recycle 90% of beverage bottles by 2029.” Globally, some “60 countries and 350 U.S. municipalities” have passed similar regulations.
Those shifting winds may not be daunting to Formosa, but they have been to Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical, which had planned to build an ethylene-polyethylene complex in Ohio. In mid-May, the company decided to “indefinitely postpone” any further construction, indicating that “conditions needed for such a complex had deteriorated” even before COVID-19 showed its microscopic face, reports Petrochemical Update, in a dispatch republished by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).
“Prior to the pandemic, the planned PTTGC project for Ohio faced a cumulative set of troublesome risks,” said IEEFA Director of Finance Tom Sanzillo. “The pandemic only increased the weak fundamentals and created greater uncertainty about the fate of the project.”