Written by Rachel A. Meidl
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the global economy and disrupted the waste, plastic, and recycling industries. While waste management, plastics production, and recycling sectors at first glance appear only tangentially linked to essential services, they are intimately connected to a thriving economy and critical public health roles. 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. As a result, more recyclables are being disposed of in the traditional waste processes- landfill and incineration. The behavior is additionally supported by precipitous drop in oil prices that makes manufacturing of the recyclable commodities cheaper. This challenges the goals of sustainability but also displays the deficiencies of short-term and product-based solutions to the plastics waste issue while stressing the need for a systems-level approach.
The global demand for certain uses of plastics has increased due to the coronavirus. The polymers polypropylene, used in lifesaving medical equipment such as N-95 masks and in takeout food packaging, polyethylene used in Tyvek protective suits, and PET in single-use plastic water bottles and medical face shields have all seen a rise in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic plays out. With restaurants shifting to take-out, consumers stockpiling groceries and bottled water, and the medical community rapidly turning over personal protective equipment (PPE), there has subsequently been an uptick in plastic waste, municipal solid waste from residences, and hazardous waste generated from healthcare facilities, including quarantine sites, that are infected with COVID-19. However, overall plastic waste generation has likely decreased.
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