Rachel Meidl from Rice University’s Baker Institute explores the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on plastics, recycling, and continuing the quest for sustainability in a recent article published by Forbes.
“The uncertainties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have caused significant limitations on recycling and municipal waste services in the U.S. and beyond. Meanwhile, the likely decrease in plastic waste generation—due to the global decline in economic activity, reduced collection rates and halt in container redemption programs where inventory may not make it into the waste and recycling system until post-pandemic—has been significantly muted by the needs associated with the pandemic,” she said.
As a result, more plastic is being disposed of with traditional waste and going to landfills and incinerators, instead of being properly recycled, she said.
“The consequence of less overall recycling is that there are fewer recyclables in the supply chain to make products while also temporarily pausing sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social, governance (ESG) goals,” said Meidl. “Because of the drop in oil prices that subsequently deplete the value of recycled commodities relative to new materials, and without government mandates that require minimum recycled content in products, producing virgin plastic in processes using oil as a feedstock is far cheaper. The pandemic, coupled with the oil price collapse and a global economic slowdown, challenges the world’s stated desire for investments to keep pace with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the aspiration of a circular economy.”
She goes on to say that “sustainability can only be achieved by quantifying and prioritizing actions for the environmental, economic, and social good for the long run. COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis has strained local and national waste operations while also dampening trade value of recyclables in ways that may aggravate the global plastic waste issue, destabilize CSR/ESG/SDG commitments, and deviate industry and governments from the global sustainability trajectory already charted. However, COVID-19 has not eliminated the need to propel the recycling industry to become more economical and sustainable.”