Covid: The impact on recycling

With the high street shut and online retail scaling new heights, households find themselves the recipient of ever more packaging material. Great British Wood wool looks at the recycling challenge this presents.

As last year’s coronavirus pandemic took hold around the globe, it did at least seem as if there might be one major upside to events: the planet was being given a chance to get its breath back.

Transportation networks ground to a halt, and in satellite images we watched the skies literally clearing. Scientists testified to plunging levels of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. Marine biologists measured instant improvements in the health of the oceans.

One year on, though, and the picture is more complex. After a dramatically steep fall in transport-related carbon emissions in April, when global lockdowns were at their most comprehensive, there was some bounce back; and the swift industrial recovery of nations such as China meant that, in the end, total emissions from industry were not down on 2019.

And then there is the problem of plastics.

It is becoming clear that recycling – and particularly, as always, the recycling of plastics – has suffered under Covid-19. For, while lockdowns may have kept traffic off the roads, they have at the same time fuelled traffic online. And that has meant a surge in online purchases and deliveries – with all the forms of packaging those entail.

Examples of how the trend is threatening to overwhelm local recycling facilities have recently been reported in the news.

For example, according to the BBC, Cardiff council was after Christmas faced with 400 tonnes of extra recycling – a direct consequence, they observed, of ‘the early lockdown and a big shift towards online shopping’.

But the circumstances of the pandemic meant that it was the worst possible time to address the challenge. For while the council would have needed an extra 150 pairs of hands to collect the recycling, it had in fact far fewer to spare than usual – thanks to the prior claims of similarly high volumes of general and food waste, and, of course, the unavailability of workers due to sickness or self-isolation.

During the original spring lockdown, the same council – along with councils in St Helens and Inverclyde – resorted to sending bags of household recycling to the incinerator. This decision, in the case of Cardiff at least, was influenced by concerns over safety and an assessment of the dangers of sorting recycling by hand.

Though that was a temporary measure, sorting waste has in fact become generally problematic during the pandemic, not least because of the presence in the mix of used face coverings and other PPE. It’s not just that those materials do indeed pose a safety risk to workers; it’s that they are not, in any case, ordinarily recyclable. Manchester’s Materials Recovery Facility, for one, reported a spike last year in rejected recycling loads thanks to this very source of contamination.

Face coverings – the disposable surgical mask variety – contain non-recyclable plastic. And though the World Health Organisation is clear that washable fabric masks are no less effective, the continuing popularity of the throwaway kind illustrates how the pandemic – and a consequent public prioritising of what is taken to be most hygienic – has already put the single-use plastic problem firmly back on the table.

It’s a development that extends to the whole of the packaging industry.

Starbucks, for example, ‘out of an abundance of caution’ (their Europe spokesman, Robert Lynch, told the BBC back in March), paused the use of customers’ personal cups in the UK in favour of their own disposable cups (which usually end up in landfill, thanks to how difficult it is to separate the paper from its plastic lining).

Across North America, planned bans on single-use plastic shopping bags have been postponed. In Scotland, the Circular Economy Bill – legislation dedicated, in the words of that government’s Environment Secretary, to ‘a fundamental re-think about how we use and reuse materials’ – was in April put on indefinite hold.

It’s in part the generally paralysing effect of the pandemic. But it’s also an obvious reflection of what a recent McKinsey report called ‘a new appreciation by consumers and industries of the hygiene advantages plastic packaging can offer that seems to be outweighing concerns about recyclability and plastic-waste leakage into the environment’.

Perfecting the storm, as it were, is the now ultra-low price of oil. That collapsed market has rendered the cost of production for virgin plastic lower than ever – presenting to manufacturers a freshly competitive alternative to recycled materials at a time of renewed consumer demand.

The hope for the recycling industry must be that all these points of negative impact will prove transient.

And it’s a fair hope. As things stand, oil prices are expected to recover through 2021, possibly returning to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year. And the UK government, though it indeed delayed its own anti-plastic bag legislation in March, did in the end implement it at the beginning of October.

It’s a question of firm commitments and deep trends riding out the disruptions of the pandemic. And in a number of quarters those trends and commitments do seem to be holding firm.

In April, for example, when the European Plastics Converters trade association called on the European Commission to lift its ban on some single-use plastics (on the grounds that ‘hygiene and consumer health will be the number one priority’), the Commission refuted the argument.

And similar resolve is visible at the highest levels of business. It’s reassuring to note that not one of the packaged goods companies currently signed up to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy project – committed thereby to ‘a circular economy for plastic in which it never becomes waste’ – has changed their plans because of the pandemic.

As it did us all, Covid-19 caught the recycling industry off guard; and it has, to some extent, unquestionably derailed operations.

But there is no evidence yet that it has shaken a larger, shared determination to eliminate unnecessary plastics, and their manufacture, from the world of packaging.

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