How the plastics industry turned the pandemic to its advantage | Plastics

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Jthere are only two reasons why the plastics industry will change, a polymer scientist once told me: war or legislation. Companies in the plastics value chain have faced a number of environmental and health crises, ranging from toxic scandals to marine plastic litter and the climate emergency. Each of these crises has resulted in new laws and regulations, despite corporate efforts to undermine them.

In the two years leading up to the pandemic, public backlash against plastic was a major concern for industry executives. As one business executive remarked at an industry event in early 2019: “We need to chase the image of plastic into the oceans of the public mind. Otherwise, we could lose our social license to operate. Of course, the pandemic hasn’t erased the image of plastic in the oceans from the public’s mind. However, it has highlighted in a very real and urgent way the importance of many plastic products for health care and hygiene. At the Global Virtual Petrochemical Conference in April 2020, an industry analyst commented on this unexpected change: At least for the moment. moment. And polyethylene might even win public favor as it plays a leading role in combating the greatest health risk to our planet in modern history.

This temporary respite from public anti-plastic sentiment has opened the door for the industry to push back against bans on single-use plastics. In July last year, the European Commission rejected industry’s request to delay the European directive on single-use plastics. However, several single-use plastic bans and deposit schemes have been reversed or delayed in countries around the world, in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Plastic-derived PPE is essential to keep medical personnel safe. Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

During the pandemic, plastic has regained its original paradoxical status as both a miracle and a threat to society. For the industry, that was enough: it had regained its social license to operate. By the end of 2020, industry leaders had fully embraced the new pandemic narrative about plastics’ essential role in society and many expressed optimism about their future growth. At the virtual Global Petrochemical Conference in March 2021, industry analysts identified four key “Covid demand drivers”: food packaging, bag ban delays, online shopping and hygiene and medicine.

As one petrochemical industry executive enthused: “The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how essential all of our products are for all members of society around the world. We have seen record sales and volumes for our products throughout the pandemic…long term, we can continue to see this type of growth, and we are going to see this accelerate as economies reopen around the world . All of this is really driven by the growing global middle class, and it’s going to drive demand for the products that we make. Covid-19 has not changed our long-term view of fundamentals.

Hearing these glowing industry reports on the growth of single-use plastics, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for the plastics that have entered my home in the UK during the pandemic. Many environmental activists and researchers have pointed out that one of the industry’s main tactics is to blame the consumer for plastic waste, which distracts from corporate responsibility. The plastics crisis is however a systemic problem and most people are locked into supply chains and infrastructure, unable to simply opt out of consuming plastics.

According to a recent study published in the journal Scientists progress, the UK is second only to the US in terms of the amount of plastic waste generated per person, at 99kg and 105kg per person per year respectively. Supermarkets with over-packaged foods are one of the main problems. By contrast, the global average for plastic consumption is 45 kg per person per year, and as little as 4 kg per person per year in India. Watching the consequences of one’s own actions, from a privileged vantage point, multiplied and intensified across the planet, invites a kind of vertigo.

Gary Stokes, founder of Oceans Asia, poses with discarded masks found on a beach in Hong Kong.
Gary Stokes, founder of Oceans Asia, poses with discarded masks found on a beach in Hong Kong. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

As voluntary corporate pledges to end plastic waste have poured in, the plastics crisis has only deepened. Some of the most scathing reports have emerged during the pandemic, such as the Changing Markets Foundation’s Talking Trash report, which concluded that “the Covid-19 health crisis has, once again, shown that Big Plastic is still primed and ready.” to co-opt a crisis to its advantage, pushing to undermine environmental legislation or any restrictions on its products… [T]The plastics industry does not have people’s interests at heart. instead, he makes cold calculations to carry on as if nothing had happened. The Talking Trash report focused on inadequate voluntary commitments by major plastic polluters in the consumer goods and beverage industries, and the companies’ ‘playbook’ for undermining plastics legislation, in particular plastics systems. deposit and single-use plastic bans.

An important lever for changing the plastics industry has gained traction during the pandemic: the burgeoning realization by many investors and policymakers that green recovery pathways to net zero will have to phase out fossil fuels altogether, including carbon. virgin plastic (brand new). In September 2020, think tank Carbon Tracker warned plastics investors of the risk of holding assets stuck in the transition from fossil fuels. Plastic is the last pillar of oil demand growth, its researchers argued, but that pillar would be phased out very soon by growing regulatory and recycling pressures, accelerated by green recovery packages.

The need to reduce the dependence of plastics on fossil fuels has also featured in a number of policy proposals, dovetailing with the impetus to respond to the climate emergency with green recoveries from the pandemic. The US Break Free from Plastic bill reappeared in early 2021 under President Biden, incorporating calls from environmental activists and frontline communities to stop petrochemical projects and hold companies accountable for waste and emissions throughout of the plastic life cycle. The sustainability of plastics, incorporating net zero emissions targets, is also an important part of the European Green Deal. Furthermore, reducing the production of virgin plastic is a central (if contested) topic of debates over the scope of a new UN plastics treaty, as many governments, organizations and researchers increasingly recognize that the problem of plastic pollution spans the entire life cycle of plastics, from raw material extraction to manufacturing, consumption, waste and pollution.

Covid-19 tests in medical waste bags
Covid-19 tests in medical waste bags. Photography: Syspeo/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

If there’s one insight that can be gleaned from looking at how companies have responded to the plastics crisis, which has escalated during the pandemic, it’s the power of legislation. Binding laws and regulations offer less leeway than voluntary commitments, particularly in terms of prohibition. The plastics industry is more concerned about the threat of the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive, which is binding legislation, than about Ellen MacArthur’s global commitment to the new plastics economy, which relies on commitments circular economy volunteers. Outright banning of specific plastic products, for environmental or public health reasons, effectively removes these products from the market.

The pandemic has made it clear that we need binding legislation and regulations to tackle the plastics crisis, but we also need another lever for change. We must continue to challenge the prevailing assumption that there can be continued growth of plastics on a finite planet. If this assumption could be reversed, in line with the growing consensus that the world must move away from fossil fuels, it would be a starting point for meaningful change.

  • This is an edited excerpt from Plastic Unlimited: How Corporations Are Fueling the Ecological Crisis and What We Can Do About It by Alice Mah, published by Political press (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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