As the café chains Pret A Manger and Starbucks begin cautiously reopening, one thing is missing from their shops: customers’ reusable cups, ubiquitous before the pandemic, are banned for now for hygiene reasons.
The return to disposable cups, lined and lidded with polymers, is just one sign of how coronavirus has set back the battle against single-use plastics.
Concern about infection has driven consumers back to throwaway packaging, while bans on disposable items have been delayed in the UK and US.
At the same time, the switch from eating out to buying food to have at home has also pushed up demand for packaging.
Andrew King, chief executive of the FTSE 100 packaging supplier Mondi, said the company had seen “an increase across the board in Europe for all types of flexible plastic packaging”, from the films used to cover cheese and meat to pouches that hold products like detergents, pet food, crisps and sweets.
The plastics industry, which also produces personal protective equipment, has chosen this moment to plead its cause with governments, while record low oil prices have made plastic cheaper than ever to produce.
About 300m tonnes of plastic waste are produced globally each year, less than a tenth of which is recycled. Plastic also contributes to climate change. According to a 2019 report by the Centre for International Environmental Law, production and incineration of plastic created more than 850m metric tons of greenhouse gases during that year, a similar level of emissions to 189 coal-fired power plants.
Momentum on cutting plastic pollution has grown since the 2018 David Attenborough series, Blue Planet II, drew wider attention to the problem. Sian Sutherland, co-founder of the campaign group A Plastic Planet, said: “We were just at the point where the public were on side and people wanted to see a reduction.”
But concrete change has so far been limited, with production of “virgin plastics”, which are made directly from fossil fuels, continuing to rise. Just as the economic downturn of 2008-2009 set back action on climate policies, campaigners are worried that the same could happen now for plastic.
In the UK a ban on plastic straws and stirrers has been delayed by six months because of supply chain disruptions caused by coronavirus, while a decision on a plastic packaging tax has been delayed by three months; a charge for plastic shopping bags has been waived for online deliveries.
Because of concerns about virus transmission on reusable bags, California and Oregon have lifted plastic bag bans, Maine has delayed its own ban, and a series of US cities and grocery chains have banned reusable bags.
“Plastics play a critical role in health and personal care,” said Tony Radoszewski, head of US trade body the Plastics Industry Association. “Production . . . is stable or increasing to meet demand for safe, hygienic protective equipment and more, due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Campaigners dispute the health arguments in favour of plastic packaging, pointing to evidence that the virus appears to linger for longer on plastic surfaces than on alternatives such as cardboard. In any case, the main mode of transmission is person to person. But consumers still appear concerned.
Dave Lewis, chief executive of the UK’s largest supermarket Tesco, said that the trend for customers to avoid packaging had gone into reverse: “Before the crisis, people were looking for more unpackaged, loose produce, [but] people are interestingly going back to pre-packed produce because they believe that’s a safer purchase,” he told the BBC.
Fiona Walker, a 39-year-old teacher in Yorkshire, does food shopping for her father and his girlfriend, who are in isolation and have asked to receive only produce that is wrapped in plastic.
“I try to not buy plastic where possible but now I’m having to actively go and find plastic packaging,” said Ms Walker, adding that her father’s girlfriend was “freaked out that [the virus] will be passed on by people touching the food . . . It’s not what I believe is the right thing, but you have to respect what they are going through.”
A steep rise in demand for cleaning and hygiene products has required yet more plastic. The British Plastics Federation said its members that supply packaging for food and drink, bleach, handwash and medicines were operating at record capacities. Lids and bottles for hand sanitiser are in especially high demand.
Wood Mackenzie, a chemicals consultancy, said manufacturers of plastic products had pre-ordered large amounts of plastic film, anticipating a shortage because of higher demand.
Jacob Hayler at the Environmental Services Association, a London-based group representing the waste and recycling industry, said some of the in-demand single-use plastics would be hard to recycle.
“Particularly in medical settings . . . it has always been recognised that there is a role for single use plastics in those settings for maintaining hygiene,” said Mr Hayler. “With some of these, plastic films, flexible films, or mixed plastics, it can be more challenging to find ways to recycle some of that stuff.”
Even before crude oil prices crashed last month, prices of the most common plastics were at lows not seen for years. Chemicals producers have committed vast sums of money over the past decade to build new facilities to take advantage of shale gas as a raw material, leading to an oversupply.
Prices for high-density polyethylene (HDPE), used for shampoo bottles and pipes, have slumped by almost half since the start of 2018, according to S&P Global Platts. Prices for polypropylene, found in car parts and food packaging, are down by more than one-third. “Low prices will make the shift away from single-use plastics more challenging,” said Rob Stier, head of petrochemicals analytics at S&P Global Platts.
At the same time, a type of recycled plastic used to make drinks bottles has become more expensive in Europe than “virgin” material. Recycled polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, exceeded the prices of virgin PET in the continent last year for the first time since S&P Global began its index, as demand outstripped supply. The gap in prices has since widened further.
“You really have to have engaged consumers willing to pay a premium for the recycled content,” said Mr Stier.
This places yet another block in the path to shifting the consumer economy away from plastics. But not all signs point this way.
In spite of calls from the industry for a delay, the European Commission has said it will stick to its 2021 deadline for banning single-use straws, cutlery and other items.
And consumer goods groups say they will stick to their pledges on plastics reduction. Mark Schneider, chief executive of Nestlé, said: “We fully stand by our sustainability commitments . . . Time is of the essence and these challenges need to be tackled.” Nestlé has promised to spend up to $2bn to increase the use of recycled plastics in food packaging.
Campaigners would like to more action from governments and companies, in particular a focus on reuse rather than recycling. But Ms Sutherland said public sentiment was also crucial.
“There was this moment when we all went into lockdown and anyone who was involved in the plastics fight paused, creating a vacuum where the plastics industry piled in . . . But this is also a moment in time when the public are more aware of the fragility and connectedness of our environmental, economic and societal systems than we have ever been.”