Jul 16, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Pandemic drives spike in plastic use, but it may not last

Plastic wrap with an Earth in one round part.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The war against plastic is losing, for now, to the war against the coronavirus.

Where it stands: Reusable everything, from bags to utensils, is considered a potential spreader of COVID-19, so businesses across the spectrum are swapping multi-use products for single-use alternatives, most of which is plastic.

Why it matters: Plastic was polluting virtually everywhere on Earth before the pandemic, prompting a global outcry to improve recycling or get off the petroleum-derived material altogether. Now, the coronavirus is leaving its mark with plastic masks and gloves washing up on beaches around the world — just one of many stark examples.

By the numbers: Forecasts suggest a big — but temporary — spike in plastic use, according to data from Wood Mackenzie on flexible packaging, a material that's made from plastic 90% of the time. It’s used for storing items like food and medical equipment.

  • Use of flexible packaging is set to increase 8% in the U.S. this year, compared to a pre-pandemic forecast of just 3.2%.
  • That forecast drops back down to 2% by 2021 though.
  • This data does not capture increased use of different kinds of plastic that may have longer uses, such as plexiglass to divide people in restaurants and offices.
Data: Wood Mackenzie; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: Wood Mackenzie; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Yes, but: Those assumptions should face scrutiny, according to Ben Locwin, an epidemiologist and consultant for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • “The whole reason behavioral economics field exists is because people don’t act rationally. To assume everyone will go back to how they used to behave when the new disposal lifestyle is more convenient isn’t true.”

How it works: Oil and gas companies also make the products that eventually become plastic, and they have been betting on the world’s steadily growing consumption of plastic even before the pandemic hit.

Experts say the COVID-19 outbreak won't provide a long-term boost to demand.

“In terms of oil demand, this spike has more to do with a very temporary unique situation,” said Rob Gilfillan, an expert on plastics for Wood Mackenzie. “Plastic packaging remains under the microscope and brands won’t back down from those pledges they made pre-coronavirus.”

The intrigue: While some governments have delayed bans on plastic material because of the pandemic, none have been scrapped altogether despite increased lobbying on behalf of the plastic industry, according to Judith Enck, former top official at the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama and founder of Beyond Plastic, an initiative out of Bennington College where she teaches.

What’s next: More than 100 organizations, including Enck’s group and other environmental nonprofits, are sending a letter Thursday to food delivery companies like GrubHub and UberEats urging them to make it the default position on their apps to not include plastic utensils and other single-use items unless the user explicitly asks for it.

Go deeper: Single-use plastic is back in the pandemic era (WSJ)

Go deeper