- Oceans make up about 71% of the earth’s surface
- Roughly 97% of all earth’s water is in the oceans
- The ocean ecosystem provides over 90% of the habitable space on earth1
- 50% of the oxygen on earth is generated by the oceans2
- Oceans absorb around 33% of global carbon dioxide emissions3
Oceans in crisis
Human activity has had a massive effect on our oceans, and they have not received the protection needed to support a sustainable future for our planet. Climate change is having a profound impact – we are seeing ocean acidification causing biodiversity damage, due to the absorption of higher levels of CO2; melting ice sheets; and rising sea levels. 37% of people live in coastal communities6, and they are particularly vulnerable to these impacts.
The lack of protection has allowed ocean pollution to accelerate unabated, with issues of plastic waste, pesticide and nutrient runoff, chemical or oil leaks and spills, all being factors that have a significant impact on the marine environment.
2020 was set to be a significant year of progress for oceans, with activities such as the implementation of key regulation, the 2020 UN Ocean Conference and COP26. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, priorities have shifted and the way many of us do business has totally changed. Some regulation has been delayed and COP26 has been postponed to 2021. However, efforts are being made to regain lost momentum, and some conferences and resources have gone online, making them more accessible to a wider audience, such as the World Economic Forum’s ‘Virtual Ocean Dialogues’.
Here we are going to focus on the issue of plastic and the circular economy, and the impacts COVID-19 is having. We are seeing both the amount of waste being generated increase and disruptions to the operational functionality of the waste management industry.
Plastic pollution: the issue
It has been estimated that on a business-as-usual basis there would be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, with a huge 8 million tonnes currently reaching the ocean each year8.
1.9 million pieces of microplastic per square metre were found on the Mediterranean ocean floor, likely to have come from clothing fibres, other synthetic textiles, and small fragments from bigger plastic items that have broken down over time9
In the River Nile, three-quarters of fish have been found to contain microplastics. The Nile is the longest river in the world, running through eleven countries and the pollution was found all the way from the source to where it enters the sea.10
30% of fish caught in the UK were found to contain plastic11.
50% of all protein consumed in least developed countries comes from seafood12. Given widespread plastic contamination, this may have human health impacts which are not yet fully understood.
Product packaging – a shift back to plastics
Whilst some consumers were moving towards purchasing models that demanded less reliance on single-use plastic, that trend has now reversed, with people currently purchasing more products in single-use plastic once again. The Food Standards Agency and the World Health Organisation have said that it is “very unlikely” that people can catch COVID-19 from food, and that there have been no confirmed cases of transmission via food or food packaging. However, there is understandable consumer concern, and the preference is to buy food wrapped in plastic, rather than loose items at this time. Some of the change is due to the closure of fresh food counters, where consumers could often bring in their own containers, and now are buying the packaged food items once more. For instance, sales of pre-packed bread and battered fish are up around 54%, and sales of loose bacon, sausages, cooked meats and cheese were down considerably compared to their pre-packaged alternatives in April 2020, versus the same timeframe in 201913.
Another factor is single-use plastic for the On-The-Go category, where consumers were increasingly using reusable cups and bottles that they were taking into cafes. Whilst the closure of many cafes and the prevalence of home working has reduced total demand in this area, as lockdowns ease, most cafes will no longer be accepting the use of reusable cups for safety reasons14. We are, therefore, likely to see a spike in this waste product again here, but hopefully one that will be short-lived.
Adding to the challenges, some legislation has been paused. For example, UK regulation banning plastic straws, stirrers, earbuds and other such single-use items was due to take effect in April 2020, but has now been postponed. This is due to slower and and disrupted supply chains for the alternatives and to reduce pressure on companies that are already in crisis15. The charge for plastic carrier bags has also been suspended for some outlets during this time16.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
The use of PPE is critical to protect medical staff and other key workers. Much of it is made from single use plastic or has components which are; and at the point of disposal, it is generally medically contaminated and so can’t be recycled17. The use and disposal of latex gloves and masks has also increased by people around the world, and we are seeing pictures of these now entering the marine environment18.
Recycling – the circular economy disrupted
In a circular economy, a reliable stream of recycled inputs is required as part of an integrated supply chain. The COVID-19 pandemic has created disruption to this system, and affected the amount of recycled materials in supply chains including paper, aluminium and plastics. There are now interesting questions being raised as to whether processes could be automated or redesigned to prevent disruptions in the future.
Recycling collection systems have suffered disruption. In the UK’s lockdown, for instance, 46% of all local authority waste management services have stopped or been reduced, as worker safety is of of course paramount in these public service industries19. Consumers have therefore returned to a higher rate of disposing waste products in the traditional bins, rather than recycling. People have also been spending much more time at home, and so waste disposal has been concentrated in residential areas, rather than distributed as before during commutes or in office areas, adding to the challenges.
The disruptions to recycling collection and processing are threatening the supply of renewable products back into supply chains. 9% of plastics are, on average, recycled20 – much lower than for other materials such as aluminium (64% is the industry average21). Many companies have targets in place to increase the amount of recycled content in their packaging, and the fact that recycled inputs aren’t coming into the cycle to the same degree, could delay the achievement of these ambitions.
The constraints in existing waste management systems, being emphasised now, are adding to the pressure on governments to increase the capacity of recycling infrastructure and processing facilities22. So, a silver lining from this could be that we see real advancements in this area, with investments being made which would help towards building a more global circular economy.
Adding to the practical challenges in the supply of recycled plastic, the economics have also become more challenging. The crude oil price has fallen significantly, 40% since the beginning of the year23. This is due to a combination of national producer disputes, the economic slowdown, reduced demand and a surplus in supply. Given that virgin plastic (PET) is made from oil, the prices of the two commodities are intrinsically linked.
2 Same as above
5 WWF, 2015
23 From 1st January – 4th June 2020