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Could Covid Kill Recycling?

The areas of society that have not been affected by Covid-19 are few and far between; industries across the globe have had to assess and adapt to the changing world at lightspeed. The instancy and intensity with which demand for plastic in particular has surged is unprecedented. From medical equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) to packaging and sanitation products, the rate at which plastic is being consumed is extreme. This is having a number of highly problematic knock-on effects on both the environment and the recycling industry, and government intervention is going to be a necessity in stabilising the situation before it gets out of control.

The first issue arising from this is the single-use plastic items being discarded and added to the already significant amount of plastic pollution. Gloves, face masks, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitiser bottles are among the kinds of single-use products not being disposed of correctly; it is being predicted that in the Mediterranean Sea, the quantity of waste produced by Covid-19 measures could outnumber the amount of jellyfish by the end of the year. This is a problem that is not yet being addressed, and it is vital that political leaders quickly develop, implement and enforce an appropriate infrastructure to deal with this ‘Covid Waste’.

The second and most pressing issue is that the heavy reduction in fuel and oil usage due to restricted transport and manufacturing during the pandemic has caused oil prices to dramatically decrease. The problem here is that plastic is made from oil; with oil prices being so low, it is cheaper than ever to manufacture virgin plastic. Due to this, manufacturers are making hay while the sun is shining and over-producing polymers while the cost of oil is down, flooding the market with cheap virgin plastic. The end result of this is the loss of any incentive to use recycled plastic. The carbon footprint of extracting and refining oil for new plastic is exceptionally higher than the process of recycling it. As well as this, it means will be a lot more plastic to later become pollution – a problem that recycled plastic solves quite nicely. The loss of profit for recycling companies will not only hinder investment in new recycling technologies but will also mean the taxpayer has to foot the bill to help local authorities deal with waste.

It is absolutely imperative that governments act swiftly to support the recycling industry. In recent years a significant shift towards a circular economy has been made, and recycling is the very backbone of it. If the progress made in the last 5 years is lost and virgin plastic manufacturing is allowed to become the industry standard, this could take decades to recover from. The UK government has already delayed the ban of various single-use plastic items from April 2020 until October 2020; if the planned tax of £200 per tonne of plastic packaging containing less that 30% recycled material set for April 2022 is also delayed, then the recycling industry could very well face a crisis unlike any it has seen before.

The solution is threefold: government action, corporate responsibility and consumer responsibility – each part of this trio is as important as the others. We need clear government support for recyclers and incentives for manufactures to use recycled plastic. We need corporate manufacturers to show a commitment to sustainability by continuing to use recycled plastic, which will also help to keep the prices of recycled plastic low. Finally, we need consumers to practice responsible waste disposal at home, at work and in public places; keeping recyclables clean and segregated will make the recycling process faster and more cost-effective for recyclers.

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