How coronavirus reveals our unbreakable bond with single use plastic

by | Apr 27, 2020 | All posts, Waste management | 0 comments

We have all seen or read the news reports – panic buying hand sanitiser, rationing antibacterial wipes; extortionate prices for protective masks on the internet; Starbucks and other cafes banning the use of personal cups in its stores for fear of contamination, prior to their temporary closure.

As coronavirus bears down on society, single-use plastic steps up in an unprecedented way.  Just as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II brought about a ‘plastic revolution’ (Guardian, 2019), revealing the devastating global effects of our reliance on plastic, coronavirus is showcasing it.  Recent environmental wins such as the growing widespread use of reusable products, such as coffee cups and water bottles, and heightened public awareness of the challenges of single-use plastic pale in comparison to the threat of a global pandemic.

And who can blame people for wanting to protect themselves and their families through whatever means they can?  With so many unknowns about coronavirus, precautionary measures to ensure good hygiene and keep germs at bay seem sensible regardless of the materials involved.  The unique features of plastics have led to its dominance of the healthcare, food retail and manufacturing industries for the last 50 years: exceptional protection against oxygen and water, exemplary hygienic qualities are coupled to value for money and low carbon footprint.  Disposable plastic has revolutionised modern healthcare enabling time-consuming, energetically demanding, and costly sterilisation practices to be replaced with a plethora of flexible, low-cost polymers which can be made into all manner of hygienic medical equipment – masks, aprons, wipes, surgical instruments, IV bags, cannulas, blister packs, medicine bottles, scrubs – the list is endless (National Geographic, 2019).  Single-use plastic has quite literally been a global lifesaver.

As society has recognised the pollution power of disposable plastics, is the response going too far?  Images of dead baby turtles, their stomachs filled with multiple pieces of plastic (Guardian, 2019), soil riddled with ill-marketed biodegradable plastic bags (BBC, 2019), or the growing realisation of nano and micro-plastics released from plastic products and finding their way into terrestrial, marine and atmospheric environments (UN Environment Programme, 2018) have incited a backlash. We know our reliance on plastic needs addressing urgently, and none more so than single-use.

Are we to do away with plastic? Should we live in a plastic-free world? Coronavirus, and indeed our entire remarkable medical practice highlights the dangerous consequences.

So what about reframing how we think about plastics?  Rather than seeing them as something disposable and of little residual value once they have protected our food, or sterilised a surface with an antibacterial wipe (Surprise! Those are polymer-based!), what if we redefine their material value?  The food recovery sector (food banks, food redistribution networks) has highlighted that food waste, such as the 1.9 million tonnes wasted by the UK food industry each year (WRAP, 2016), needs to be re-categorised not as waste but as surplus.  What can and should we do with our single-use plastic surplus?  And how might this negate the sudden surge in single-use plastics from coronavirus fears?

At present only 34% (WRAP, 2018) of UK plastic waste gets recycled.  Even this recycled component is fraught with problems: 60% of UK plastic waste is shipped to countries in the Global South to deal with, reshaping the life cycle assessment of what should be a circular process by increasing its carbon footprint through moving the waste thousands of miles.  Furthermore, much of the waste which is exported is incinerated, not recycled.  As countries are shutting their doors to exported plastic waste, citing issues of contamination and low return on investment, new end-of-life pathways are urgently required (Guardian, 2019).  In sum, currently, plastic recycling is minimal, inefficient and hindered by contamination from other sources.

Our interdisciplinary research team joins together social science with material science to develop a circular economy of plastics. In keeping with WRAP’s UK Plastic Pact, our work seeks to keep plastic out of the environment and ensure that all plastic is either re-used or recycled. Our aim is to revalorise plastic waste (our plastic surplus) and to provide a hierarchy for plastic recycling.  A bit like the food waste pyramid the plastic hierarchy determines whether plastic should be:

  1. Re-used (the primary and most desirable route, but not always feasible – we’re not going to reuse those facemasks!)
  2. Mechanically recycled (reprocessing of plastic without changing the chemical structure – turning a bottle into a new bottle, or at worst downcycled into a cheaper product)
  3. Chemically recycled (plastic is broken down to its molecular components – polymer to monomer – through either selective processes like depolymerisation or unselective transformations like pyrolysis which can then be used to make virgin plastic).

What we choose to do is the process which retains the most value, meaning that something intensive like chemical recycling is ideal for contaminated health waste or “non-recyclable” mixed plastics. The surge in single-use hygiene items following coronavirus could then be recycled if we have the right infrastructure!

So how do we deliver on this potential future? A key component is the standardisation of waste management systems.  UK household waste management is fragmented and confusing – what goes in what coloured wheelie bin really depends on your local authority’s priorities (BBC, 2014).  Not only does this lead to confusion but it also leads to contamination as items end up in the wrong bins.  We are developing the concept of “One Bin” to standardise plastic waste collection meaning there is one bin for all plastic waste – including our wipes, masks and sanitiser bottles. The surplus plastic in One Bin will then be sorted and valued according to the plastic hierarchy and all waste/surplus will be recycled.

We certainly do not condone panic buying and urge caution in forgetting the efforts we have put into shifting towards a reuse economy, but we do realise that this global crisis has heightened plastic product visibility. Whilst coronavirus may have us stocking up on products which overtly or covertly contain plastic, we can take heart in knowing that once this is all over we can go back to our growing ethos of re-use (Independent, 2018) and know that should another pandemic strike, our recycling systems may next time have a robust One Bin system to ensure no plastic is released into the environment.

This article first appeared in Discover Society (March 2020). 

Dr Helen Holmes is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester.  Her work focuses on materiality, consumption and diverse forms of economy.

Prof Michael Shaver is the Sustainable Materials Champion for the Henry Royce Institute and Professor of Polymer Science at the University of Manchester.