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Plastic pandemic: Covid-19 trashed the recycling dream

  • Published at 01:17 pm October 5th, 2020
Plastic-pandemic-Covid-19-trashed-the-recycling-dream
FILE PHOTO: Reuters

Already since 1950, the world has created 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste, 91% of which has never been recycled

The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a rush for plastic.

From Wuhan to New York, demand for face shields, gloves, takeaway food containers and bubble wrap for online shopping has surged. Since most of that cannot be recycled, so has the waste.

But there is another consequence. The pandemic has intensified a price war between recycled and new plastic, made by the oil industry. It's a war recyclers worldwide are losing, price data and interviews with more than two dozen businesses across five continents show.

“I really see a lot of people struggling,” Steve Wong, CEO of Hong-Kong based Fukutomi Recycling and chairman of the China Scrap Plastics Association told Reuters in an interview. 

“They don't see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The reason: Nearly every piece of plastic begins life as a fossil fuel. The economic slowdown has punctured demand for oil. In turn, that has cut the price of new plastic.

Already since 1950, the world has created 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste, 91% of which has never been recycled, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Science. 

Most is hard to recycle, and many recyclers have long depended on government support. New plastic, known to the industry as “virgin” material, can be half the price of the most common recycled plastic.

Since Covid-19, even drinks bottles made of recycled plastic – the most commonly recycled plastic item – have become less viable. The recycled plastic to make them is 83% to 93% more expensive than new bottle-grade plastic, according to market analysts at the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS).

The pandemic hit as politicians in many countries promised to wage war on waste from single-use plastics. 

China, which used to import more than half the world's traded plastic waste, banned imports of most of it in 2018. 

The European Union plans to ban many single-use plastic items from 2021. The US Senate is considering a ban on single-use plastic and may introduce legal recycling targets.

Plastic, most of which does not decompose, is a significant driver of climate change.

The manufacture of four plastic bottles alone releases the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of driving one mile in a car, according to the World Economic Forum, based on a study by the drinks industry. 

The United States burns six times more plastic than it recycles, according to research in April 2019 by Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and former vice chair of the US Federal climate committee.

But the coronavirus has accentuated a trend to create more, not less, plastic trash.

The oil and gas industry plans to spend around $400 billion over the next five years on plants to make raw materials for virgin plastic, according to a study in September by Carbon Tracker, an energy think tank.

This is because, as a growing fleet of electric vehicles and improved engine efficiency reduce fuel demand, the industry hopes rising demand for new plastic can assure future growth in demand for oil and gas. It is counting on soaring use of plastic-based consumer goods by millions of new middle-class consumers in Asia and elsewhere.

The new plastic wave is breaking on shores across the globe.

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