Plastics Industry Uses the Pandemic to Boost Production

Single-use plastic items laying on a table with the word "stop" spelled out using plastic straws

The COVID-19 crisis has touched every aspect of our society and laid bare the fundamental, unjust problems in many of our systems, particularly in healthcare, agriculture, and housing. The waste system is also one that has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, causing problems for communities and sustainability goals, but has gotten less attention:

  • Many communities experienced temporary suspensions of curbside recycling while areas are also reporting residential waste increases up to 35 percent.
  • Hundreds of waste management professionals have become ill, stressing the need for greater safeguards including hazard pay and more PPE.
  • There have been spikes in demand for certain materials, like recovered fiber for tissue and paper towels, while commercial sources for recyclables have stalled with closures.

Meanwhile, the plastics industry has used the global pandemic to try to improve its image, while fighting efforts to reduce waste and improve the recycling system.

Globally, 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced every year. Demand for plastics is a growing source of greenhouse gases as it increasingly drives the world’s consumption of oil and gas. Plastic pollution has reached crisis levels, with a dump truck’s worth of plastic pouring into our oceans every minute. This threatens over 800 species of wildlife. Microplastics are rapidly filling our water, soil, and even our air. This problem devastating our environment and we’re just beginning to understand the potent affects it can have on our health.

There are many reasons why plastics have such a bad reputation and the industry has seized this time to improve its image and ramp up consumption. Industry efforts have been effective, as some companies report double-digit percentage sale increases.

The bottom line is that single-use plastics are not the solution. And the plastic industry’s arguments will lead to a decrease in recycling and reusables that will be harmful to public health nationwide.

Plastics and the Pandemic

At the start of the pandemic, the Plastics Industry Association sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, urging it to publicly state single-use plastics as a safer choice than reusable options. Though plastics are a common material in the healthcare industry, there are still efforts in healthcare to replace harmful plastics with non-toxic alternatives and reduce unnecessary plastic waste.

But there is a lack of substantive evidence to back up claims that daily items such as single-use plastic bags and food service ware are less likely to transmit the coronavirus. The industry has commonly cited older studies that only confirm bacteria can accumulate on unwashed bags (and that washing reusable bags destroys the bacteria).

Recently, over 100 scientists from 18 countries affirmed that reusables are safe and don’t increase the chance of virus transmission. They state that single-use plastics are not inherently safer and cause additional public health concerns.

The plastics industry has also taken part in requesting $1 billion from any Congressional infrastructure support due to COVID-19. This request would provide grants for improvement in recycling collection and processing infrastructure. The US recycling system does need infrastructure improvements – for example, we have limited mills that produce recycled paper products and limited glass refineries which contributes to lower glass recovery rates. But simply focusing on infrastructure does not address the fundamental problem: plastic production.

There are global, multi-stakeholder efforts to reduce plastic pollution and improve its circularity that go well beyond infrastructure improvements. But the industry continues to push back on efforts that will achieve these goals. 

Problems with Plastic Recycling

In the 1980s, people and companies were throwing out more trash than ever, and there were concerns that landfills would reach their capacity. Plastic products faced public scrutiny and local officials were considering product-specific bans to reduce waste. The industry fought reduction efforts and instead pushed for recycling, even though it didn’t believe plastic recycling would ever work in a significant, widespread way.

Plastics have yet to achieve significant recycling rates and new plastics production is expected to triple by 2050. A recent World Wildlife Fund report found that five major brands (Coca-Cola, Keurig, Dr Pepper, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, and Starbucks) collectively use 4.2 million metric tons of plastic annually. Only eight percent of this was recycled plastic (compare to aluminum cans, which average 73 percent recycled material per container).

The US recycling rate for plastics is a dismal 8 percent, propped up by plastic beverage bottles, jugs, and containers made with PET and HDPE (also known as recycling numbers #1 and #2). These items have recycling rates at around 30 percent. Other plastic resins are a large burden on the recycling system, including plastic film, cups, bowls, clamshells, and to-go containers, which do not have any significant recycling rates.

There are important climate benefits to a functional recycling system that curbs resource extraction. The use of recycled glass and certain plastics instead of brand-new materials cuts environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions and energy by more than half. Using recycled paper and aluminum reduces impacts up to 85 percent. To see these benefits, we need to close the loop and use recyclables. But there are challenges to plastic recycling that other materials don’t face.

Glass and metal can be recycled infinitely without degrading quality. Paper fibers can be recycled around seven times before they become too weak and can then be composted. But plastic polymers break down in the mechanical recycling process and can only be recycled once or twice before the material is too degraded for further use. Additionally, up to one third of plastic is lost when recycling products like PET bottles.

Proposed alternatives like chemical recycling present more problems than solutions. This process uses a combination of heat, pressure, depleted oxygen, or solvents to take plastic waste back to a “like new” state. But GAIA reports that chemical recycling is energy-intensive, ineffective, and bad for the climate and communities. It releases air pollutants and more plastic waste gets turned into greenhouse gas emissions than turned back into plastic.

The Association of Mission-Based Recyclers warn against unproven and unregulated technologies like chemical recycling. These recyclers have affirmed that the point of recycling is to protect our human health and the environment, reduce our carbon footprint, strengthen regional economies, and prevent the need for more resource extraction. If a process doesn’t do this, it’s simply not recycling.

Low Demand for Recycled Plastic

According to the Association of Plastics Recyclers, the biggest issue is decades-old technology and collection infrastructure. There is certainly a need for better infrastructure to collect, sort, and process recyclables within the US, but producers have continued to churn out products that our recycling system can’t process.

Brands are flooding our waste streams with single-use plastics and complex packaging and insisting that recyclers make it work. But the plastics industry reportedly does little to nothing to increase recyclability of its products, use recycled materials, or invest in recovery infrastructure.

Many plastic products beyond bottles and jars aren’t accepted in local recycling programs, since the system was not created to process this range of plastics and there’s very low market demand for them. For decades, the market “playing field” between new and recycled materials has been inconsistent and uneven. Plastics are petroleum byproducts from the oil and gas industry. The cost of new plastic changes with the cost of oil and gas, and federal subsidies have long supported these extractive industries. Infrastructure to extract and refine the gas for plastic production has been heavily subsidized by the government.

Some of these antiquated natural resource development policies date back to the 20th century, but industry lobbying efforts have kept them intact, preventing recycled goods from being able to evenly compete with virgin materials. While other materials do have higher market value, plastics continue to drag the entire recycling system with its low value. Additionally, the harmful impacts aren’t reflected in the low cost of new plastics.

Plastics Pollute Communities

Air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and intensive resource use are the impacts not included in the full cost of plastics. This is part of why plastic products have remained cheap and plentiful. It’s past time for this to change.

Plastics pose threats to communities from extraction to disposal. Plastics mostly end up in landfills and incinerators which are disproportionately placed in Black and Latino communities, landfills and incinerators pollute the air and water. Race is the prominent factor in predicting where toxic, industrial facilities are built and operated, even more than income or other socio-economic factors. And as environmental justice leader Dr. Robert Bullard identifies, there are no laws that would prohibit a neighborhood from being saturated with these facilities, compounding historical injustices and health risks to communities where they are built.

One example of a community impacted by industry is the Taiwanese Formosa Plastics plant proposed for construction in the 5th District of Louisiana’s St. James parish, where 87 percent of the residents are Black. The air is among the most polluted in the country due to the high concentration of industrial facilities and this new project is set to be one of the largest plastic plants in the country. The permit allows it to emit 800 tons of toxic air pollutants and 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases each year. Local residents are fighting the construction, calling for the parish council to rescind its vote approving the permits and urging Governor John Bel Edwards to intervene.

This project is among the hundreds of new plastic plants and expansions that are set to happen in the coming years. The industry clearly has no intent of slowing extraction and production of this polluting material. But a growing movement of activists and organizations are pushing back on the plastics boom and demanding real solutions.

Solving the Plastics Problem

Better infrastructure is needed to make recycling more effective for all materials. But companies must also use recycled content and drive down new resource extraction. This is how recycling can be a better piece of circularity along with reduction, reuse, and repair. We need holistic solutions that eliminate nonrecyclable, single-use plastics, grow reusable options, and close the loop with recycled content requirements.

New policy is one key mechanism to create system change. The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act would place more accountability on producing companies, put a moratorium on new plastic production sites, restrict pollutant discharge, and require investigation into health impacts of these facilities. It would ban numerous non-recyclable plastics and require recycled materials in containers.

Businesses can take responsibility and begin to make these shifts now by redesigning products and packaging and invest in better recovery systems. Companies are setting commitments to reduce plastic use and reach reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging. But this is only the first step and we need transparency and accountability from these companies to ensure real results.

As You Sow analyzed 50 companies for corporate leadership on packaging design, reusables, recycled content, transparency, recycling support, and producer responsibility. The report gave most of these companies a D or an F. As You Sow advocates that companies should increase transparency, use recycled content, pursue plans for reusables, and invest at least one percent of their annual revenue towards the needed recovery infrastructure to manage their products.

If plastics has any intention of achieving a circular management of its products, now is the time to make aggressive changes to how it engages with policies like extended producer responsibility and systemic shifts rather than devote its efforts to using the pandemic to improve its reputation.

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