Profiting from a pandemic might seem questionable, but a good businessperson never lets an opportunity pass them by. So it shouldn't be surprising that the powerful US plastics industry was quick to react to Covid-19.
In a letter to the US secretary of health Alex Azar in March, the Plastics Industry Association called for action against cities and states that had banned single-use shopping bags and coffee cups, arguing that reusable items risked transmitting the coronavirus.
"We ask that the department speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists and elected officials that puts consumers and workers at risk," the organisation wrote.
A few weeks later, its European equivalent, European Plastics Converters, which represents 22 national plastics associations, wrote to the European Commission, making much the same arguments. It asked the commission to postpone the deadline for implementation of the Single Use Plastics Directive, which member states must transpose into national law by July next year. This would outlaw single-use plastics such as plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks and cotton buds.
There has been increased use of plastics in the healthcare sector, including visors, during the pandemic
"We cannot afford, in any sense, to forget such basic precautions that plastic products can provide and is already providing in the field right now to assist in the fight against this crisis," it wrote.
Neither group really needed to seek official assistance. Healthcare protocols, public fear and changing consumer practices have all contributed to an increase in the use of plastics. Anyone making gowns, masks, face shields, gloves, Perspex sheeting, Plexiglas screens, cleaning wipes, bottles of hand sanitiser, plastic coatings, plastic wrapping and plastic bags has been doing well these past four months as the demand soared for materials that might help in the battle against the spread of the virus.
The timing is poor. Supermarkets, shoppers, cafés and online retailers had finally been getting the message that plastic is inextricably linked to the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. Government policy is to reduce plastic waste, EU law to enforce that stance is on the way, the days of single-use plastics are numbered and plastic recycling was on the rise. Then along came coronavirus and the battle between plastic as protector and plastic as polluter began.
Séamus Clancy, chief executive of Repak, the recycling industry body, says that certain plastics practically vanished early on in lockdown, but it was not long before they were replaced.
"With all the cafés and takeaways closed, we weren't seeing plastic from those sources but it has crept back into supermarkets because people don't want to buy loose food items. They feel it's safer when it comes wrapped," he says. "And now with businesses opening up again, we're seeing the plastic takeaway boxes and lids coming back again."
Mindy O'Brien, co-ordinator of Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment (Voice) and promoter of the Irish arm of the international Plastic Free July campaign, questions that feeling of safety. "It gives a false sense of security when fruit or vegetables are wrapped in plastic," she says. "Inside the wrapping is probably sterile and [it] keeps the food safe but the package has passed through a lot of hands by the time it gets into your basket, so the risk of transmission of something like Covid doesn't diminish."
For O'Brien, society's faith in plastics is frustrating. She says she cannot even take a smear test without conducting a mental assessment of the quantity of plastic used. At the point where most women find a spot on the ceiling to admire, she is fixated on the sealed package of sterile plastic speculums produced for the procedure. "There were three of them in different sizes in the pack so one got used and the other two were thrown away," she recalls with a wince. "That kind of waste makes no sense at all."
'A tricky topic'
Ola Lokken Nordrum of Irish Doctors for the Environment knows only too well the profligacy with plastics in most healthcare settings, particularly in recent months. But as a junior doctor at University Hospital Galway, he also sees how difficult it is for staff to do much about it.
"So much is made from plastic that can't be recycled and so much is wrapped in plastic that's difficult to recycle," he says. "The worst is when you get a piece of equipment in wrapping that is half plastic and half paper. If you don't separate the pieces, none of it will be recycled. I'm often walking around with one pocket full of plastic and one full of paper waiting until I can find the right bin. That's not helpful. You have to make it intuitively easy for healthcare workers to recycle."
Ideally, he says, health authorities would put pressure on manufacturers to minimise the use of plastic in devices and packaging, but the psychology of plastic dependence is complex.
"The most important thing in healthcare is making sure the public remain safe, and plastic has become our friend in doing that, but we have to see that it's not a friend to the environment so actually it's not necessarily contributing to a safer world," he says.
"It's a tricky topic, but we accept that we can't provide healthcare at an unlimited cost. All countries talk about the cost of treatments and medicines and make decisions about what can be afforded from the national budget. We should also talk about the cost in terms of the impact on the environment."
In the meantime, he urges the public to review any assumptions they may have about the intrinsic safety of plastic.
"We rely too much on plastic being this protective factor. Certainly, it can be if we use it properly but it's not the case that just by using plastic, we're protected," he says. "The few coffee shops I've been to during lockdown quite quickly stopped accepting 'keep cups' because they were not considered safe. So you're handed your disposable paper cup but then the lids are still out in public for everyone to touch and for everyone to sneeze or cough on."
Conor Walsh of the Irish Waste Management Association (IWMA) says it is too soon to know how much extra plastic has been used during the pandemic. Waste collection data has been skewed by a fall in commercial collections and an increase in domestic volumes, but he says waste operators do their best to extract all recyclable plastics.
"It's in the industry's interests to do so. We're currently recycling about 42pc [more than 100,000 tonnes] of all the plastic packaging recovered, but we have an EU target of 55pc by 2025," he says. "That's going to be challenging, so certainly nobody's going to be shirking on doing what they can to extract as much recyclables as possible."
Soft plastics such as bags, wrapping and film present a problem, however, even where they are made of ostensibly recyclable material. It is hard to make a financial case for recycling them so there isn't much of a market for them.
The IWMA took issue with a recent NUI Galway study that showed low-value plastics such as these were being sent from Europe to Asia, where regulatory practices were poor and large amounts of the materials ended up dumped in the sea. "We don't send plastics anywhere that does not have a high demand for them," Walsh says.
That leaves a lot of plastics to be disposed of in other ways. In Ireland, that means converting them to solid recovered fuel for burning mainly by the cement industry. This creates a dilemma of another kind: plastics are made from oil so this is still burning fossil fuel, just in a different form.
Mark McAuley of Polymer Technology Ireland (PTI) says there are developments in the pipeline that could calm unease about plastics. His organisation is an affiliate of European Plastics Converters but McAuley says its membership does not include the single-use plastics manufacturers that pleaded their case to the commission.
"What is within sight is the chemical recycling of plastics, as opposed to the mechanical recycling that takes place now," he says. "With mechanical recycling, you segregate plastic, grind it down, turn it into pellets and use those pellets to manufacture something of a lower value. You can only do that a very limited number of times because the quality of the plastic degrades.
"With chemical recycling, whatever plastic you recover, you can turn it back into exactly the same raw material it started out as and make brand new products again and again. So you reduce the need for virgin plastics and you're no longer hauling oil of the ground to make it."
He says the know-how exists and research is now focused on how to do it on a commercial scale. "Once you get there, that's a game-changer. You're into a whole new world of managing plastics that would resolve a lot of the current concerns."
Details of Plastic Free July campaign events, including a postcard campaign aimed at supermarkets, are available at voiceireland.org