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.
We predict that whilst these negative trends may continue for some months, they will ultimately reverse back, as consumers do want to see meaningful change in this area and companies are already responding. We hope that the current situation will drive further innovation in packaging materials, to satisfy consumer concerns around both safety as well as the desire to use less plastic. We will continue to follow this issue carefully and engage where relevant to make sure that we maintain the progress that was being achieved.
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.
At this point in time, waste from this essential use of plastic is unavoidable. However, we do think going forward that medical companies and suppliers of such equipment can innovate at the design phase, to think more and more about what happens to the product at the end of its life. We think that this is an opportunity for these companies, and one that would have a significant positive impact going forward.
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.