This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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Over the last two years, the world has rightly put all its efforts into defeating the coronavirus. International environmental agreements and plastic pacts, once hot news, were put on the back burner while our attentions focused on infection rates and prevention measures. But while our backs were turned, plastic continued to flow into our environment and oceans in ever-increasing volumes. COVID-19 had developed a nasty side effect: a plastic outbreak of pandemic proportions.
Masks, gloves, shields and barrier screens; the world scrambled to cover themselves in plastic to protect themselves from a virus no one understood. Although personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential to medical personal on the frontline, the problem lies in its disposal. It is estimated that 53 million masks are being thrown away each week in the United Kingdom. Most of these are headed for landfill or incineration, but many are found littering our streets and beaches.
"It is a shock to see how much personal protective equipment has become established in our societies", deplores Marco Aurisicchio, co-director of the Ocean Plastic Network organisation. "They are found along the roads, everywhere, and during the confinement, I found them very often on the ground in the parks", he emphasises.
The solution could be switching to biodegradable materials with a shorter lifespan. Reusable alternatives are also possible with proper decontamination protocols, and outside of a medical setting, washable fabric masks should be encouraged for the public. We cannot allow our fears of contamination let us forget we are facing an environmental emergency. Decisions on PPE in the future must be made respecting the waste hierarchy—reduce, re-use, recycle—to conserve resources and prevent mismanagement.
A single-use outbreak
The International Solid Waste Association estimates that single-use plastic consumption has risen by 250-300% during the pandemic. Social distancing and restaurant closures gave rise to an increase in take-out and food delivery, all wrapped in copious plastic packaging. Take-out food has always been a super-spreader when it comes to plastic waste. International Environmental NGO Earthwatch claims that take-out food containers are the 4th most prevalent plastic item found in European waters.
The so-called “re-use revolution” hit a stumbling block as concerns over hygiene made us panic and turn back to single-use food packaging. No one wants anything someone else has touched, or heaven forbid, sneezed on. Reusable cup schemes were paused over fears of contamination. Even plastic grocery bags came back into fashion in the United States as some states turned away from fabric reusable bags. This makes little sense. Experts agree that there is no medical evidence to suggest that reusable receptacles are less safe than single-use items. In fact, reusable containers allow greater control over hygiene processes, as well as reducing waste.
More on the Forum Network: Bigger Biodiversity Benefits for your Buck: How economic instruments can help safeguard nature, by Katia Karousakis and Edward Perry, Programme Lead & Analyst, Biodiversity, Land Use and Ecosystems, OECD
Flatten the curve
Even with restrictions being lifted, the trend for eating at home doesn't look set to wane. Now is the time for the industry to solidify this boom by switching to more sustainable methods. This unique opportunity has been recognised by food delivery giants Just Eat, who are busy trialling a reusable packaging scheme in London. Together with zero-waste shopping app Club Zero, they allow customers to choose whether they'd prefer single-use packaging or a returnable option. Supermarkets were one of the only sectors to remain open throughout the crisis, but alongside surging profits came increased competition, especially in the online category. Searious Business—a circular plastics social enterprise—believes reusable packaging could be a way to encourage customers back to brick-and-mortar stores. Working with supermarket chains Carrefour and Marjane in Morocco, they are demonstrating that reusable solutions can offer multiple long-term business benefits to the modern supermarket, including:
- Reducing packaging costs long term
- Interactive delivery systems enhance customer experience
- Guaranteeing customer loyalty and retention
- Strengthening the brand-customer relationship
Reassuringly, legislation is coming up to support this shift. The United Kingdom and Europe have already initiated plastic pacts to ensure all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable by 2025. France intends to introduce new green policies forcing supermarkets to devote a fifth of their shelves to refill stations. A new reusable packaging market could also be a welcome boost to the green recovery. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that if reusable or refillable alternatives replaced just one-fifth of existing plastic packaging it could open a USD 10 billion (EUR 8.5 billion) business opportunity, as well as reducing our dependence on the foreign supply of fossil fuels.
Build back better
The pandemic has heightened our awareness of the role sustainability needs to play in our everyday lives. We can use this collective experience to reimagine and redesign our systems and build back better. The circular economy must be central to the “new normal”. If businesses can control their resources throughout their life cycle, they can vaccinate themselves against future crises.
Going forward, health emergency or not, plastic waste reduction should remain top of the political agenda. Not only to reduce pollution but to promote sustainable growth and to stimulate both the green and blue economies.
Read OECD's report The Circular Economy in Cities and Regions
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