Pandemic sets back fight against single-use plastic, a Financial Times Article

Paul Hendriks 4 June 2020Time to read: 3 minutes

Due to the corona virus the concern about infection has driven consumers back to throwaway packaging, while bans on disposable items have been delayed in the UK and US. At the same time, the switch from eating out to buying food to have at home has also pushed up demand for packaging. The plastic industry, which also produces personal protective equipment has chosen this moment to pleas its cause with governments, while record low oil prices have made plastic cheaper than ever to produce.

The rising customer demand of plastic

About 300m tonnes of plastic waste are produced globally each yearcontributing to the climate change whereby less than a tenth is recycled. According to a 2019 report by the Centre for International Environmental Law, production and incineration of plastic created more than 850m metric tons of greenhouse gases during that year, a similar level of emissions to 189 coal-fired power plants. Moreover, concrete change has so far been limited, with production of “virgin plastics”, which are made directly from fossil fuels, continuing to rise. Just as the economic downturn of 2008-2009 set back action on climate policies, campaigners are worried that the same could happen now for plastic. 

Dave Lewis, chief executive of the UK’s largest supermarket Tesco, said that the trend for customers to avoid packaging had gone into reverse: “Before the crisis, people were looking for more unpackaged, loose produce, [but] people are interestingly going back to pre-packed produce because they believe that’s a safer purchase,” he told the BBC.

In addition, a steep rise in demand for cleaning and hygiene products has required yet more plastic. The British Plastics Federation said its members that supply packaging for food and drink, bleach, handwash and medicines were operating at record capacities. Lids and bottles for hand sanitiser are in especially high demand.

The effect of the crashed oil price on plastic

Even before crude oil prices crashed last month, prices of the most common plastics were at lows not seen for years. Prices for high-density polyethylene (HDPE), used for shampoo bottles and pipes, have slumped by almost half since the start of 2018, according to S&P Global Platts. Prices for polypropylene, found in car parts and food packaging, are down by more than one-third. “Low prices will make the shift away from single-use plastics more challenging,” said Rob Stier, head of petrochemicals analytics at S&P Global Platts.

At the same time, a type of recycled plastic used to make drinks bottles has become more expensive in Europe than virgin” material. Recycled polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, exceeded the prices of virgin PET in the continent last year for the first time since S&P Global began its index, as demand outstripped supply. The gap in prices has since widened further which places yet another block in the path to shifting the consumer economy away from plastics.

But not all signs point this way. In spite of calls from the industry for a delay, the European Commission has said it will stick to its 2021 deadline for banning single-use straws, cutlery and other items.

“There was this moment when we all went into lockdown and anyone who was involved in the plastics fight paused, creating a vacuum where the plastics industry piled in... But this is also a moment in time when the public are more aware of the fragility and connectedness of our environmental, economic and societal systems than we have ever been.”

Moreover, one of the biggest oil demands falls in history may be good news for emissions-watchers. But it's bad news for the business of plastic recycling. The question that remains is: “How will pricier post-consumer plastic affect corporate sustainable packaging commitments?”

 Source used: Financial Times, May 31, 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/c479a718-36a6-48e2-8632-a77290fc223a

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