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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

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

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Empire State Building among hundreds to light up in Biden inauguration coronavirus tribute.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.

Biden Cabinet confirmation schedule: When to watch hearings

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Jan. 16 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

The first hearings for President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet nominations begin on Tuesday, with testimony from his picks to lead the departments of State, Homeland and Defense.

Why it matters: It's been a slow start for a process that usually takes place days or weeks earlier for incoming presidents. The first slate of nominees will appear on Tuesday before a Republican-controlled Senate, but that will change once the new Democratic senators-elect from Georgia are sworn in.

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