Navigating the wave of pandemic plastic

Sancroft Team
By Sancroft Team

By Ross Lakhdari, former Consultant at Sancroft.

September 2020 will mark six months since a wave of lockdown measures were introduced across European countries, radically altering our daily lives in the process that we have yet to fully return from. It is often said that this pandemic presents a golden opportunity to build a green recovery around principles that foster a sustainable post-COVID economy. And from reviewing indicators such as carbon emission, which dramatically fell at the start of lockdown and remain below pre-pandemic levels, we may be led to the conclusion that we are on the right trajectory to achieve this. Progress on carbon is a step in the right direction, but it is far from the whole story. COVID-19 has had a profound influence on accelerating some adverse environmental impacts. The resurgence of single-use plastic has not gone unnoticed, nor has the waste that it produces.

Unravelling the rise in pandemic plastic

In recent years, plastics and packaging has risen to the top of the corporate agenda. We witnessed a number of consumer campaigns against hard-to-recycle items such as crisp packets and straws; brand action and cross-industry collaboration to address system-wide challenges, including black plastic and films; and plans for sweeping government reform to introduce extended producer responsibility, deposit return schemes and a tax on plastic packaging. Yet the fight against plastics and packaging is being derailed by the pandemic.

The first and most strikingly obvious contributor to the rise in pandemic plastic is protective equipment such as masks and PPE gloves. Global mask sales for 2020 are up 20,000% and it has been estimated that 75% of used protective equipment will end up in landfill or our oceans.[1] The importance of protective equipment cannot be understated as we continue the fight against coronavirus. Yet when combined with other drivers, we see uncontrollable levels of plastic pollution leading to increased public health risks, according to the UN.[2]

Looking beyond protective equipment, we can pinpoint both demand- and supply-side drivers behind this wave of pandemic plastic. Starting with supply and one of the key ingredients to producing virgin plastic: oil. As a result of the pandemic and mass contraction of industries such as aviation, demand for oil has seen its biggest plunge in 25 years, prompting negative prices for the first time in history.[3] A strong relationship between the prices of oil and virgin plastic has made recycled plastic more expensive and pushed the recycling industry into crisis.[4]  Other supply-side drivers include the actions that business are taking to withdraw options for consumers to use their own reusable packaging to help prevent the spread of the virus. For example, the ban on reusable coffee cups has led to a surge in takeaway waste. Though we are now starting to see signs that coffee chains, including Starbucks, are beginning to return to accepting reusable cups.[5]

As for the demand-side, there are numerous factors driving the resurgence in single-use plastic, including changing purchasing patterns and habits, shifts towards ecommerce, and changes in consumer behaviour. Taking purchasing patterns and habits first: during the coronavirus lockdown period, there was an expected rise in the volume of food delivery orders as consumers switched restaurant dinning for at home takeaways. Just Eat recently reported that year-on-year sales had jumped 44% due to the number of consumers unable to eat out.[6] But as we gorge on an increased number of takeaways, yet more plastic waste is generated. The second demand-side driver comes as no surprise. For over a decade we have witnessed the tectonic shift in the retail landscape as consumer spending moves online. Covid-19 has only accelerated this trend whilst also introducing online retail to a new segment of consumers that had not fully embraced ecommerce in the past. Many of our online purchases typically arrive to our door in multiple layers of packaging, which is often difficult or not possible to recycle. The final side-effect contributing to pandemic plastic is the radical change in consumer opinion between packaged and loose items. Before the pandemic, an increasing number of us started to turn to loose alternatives for items such as fruit and vegetables and, after listening to concerns, retailers searched for ways to remove packaged items from their shelves. Today the virus has triggered a U-turn in our move away from packaged items as consumers become wary of selecting loose items for risk of contamination.

The outlook for the fight against plastics

Plastic has played a pivotal role so far in our efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus. There is a pressing need for more gloves, masks, bottles of antibacterial gel, screen dividers, and other protective equipment. However, the pandemic has revealed the significance of our everyday purchasing decisions and habits on our fight against waste. It has exposed how fragile the fight is as the momentum that we have built over years to prevent and reduce waste can be quickly dismantled. In a post-coronavirus world, pandemic plastic will still be with us polluting our land and seas, but it is perhaps too early to tell if the new attitudes towards single-use will linger.

Sancroft has built an extensive track record working with companies from across the supply chain helping them develop their stance and strategies on packaging and waste. This includes advising on emerging legislation and changing consumer opinion to ensure our clients our well-positioned to embrace the evolving landscape. 

To find out more about the discussion or how plastics and packaging consultations and reform are set to affect your business please contact