Last reviewed 12 June 2020

The novel coronavirus has, understandably, focussed minds on public health and personal protection, and as a result, many environmental milestones have been shifted or temporarily put on hold. Laura King looks at whether concerns over hygiene are reviving consumer appetite for single-use plastics.

At the beginning of 2020, it looked like single-use plastics were reaching the end of the road. Bans for items that could be easily replaced with plastic-free alternatives were due to come to force at the end of April 2020 in England, and the Blue Planet effect had been attributed to an impressive 53% decline in single-use plastics in the 12 months after the documentary was broadcast. Unsurprisingly, with such high levels of public and government pressure, plastic was high on the corporate agenda with many big household names pledging to reduce or remove it from their products.

However, because of the pandemic, it feels like many of these gains have started to erode in the space of just a few months. In March, the compulsory charge for single-use plastic bags for groceries was dropped to help supermarkets speed up online deliveries and reduce the risk of contamination, and in April, Defra announced that it would delay the ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds by six months until October. Scotland, too, has pushed back the “go live” date for its deposit return scheme for plastic bottles from April 2021, to 2022.

Are consumers and companies taking a step back?

As well as changes in the government timetable for plastic reduction measures, supermarkets are also seeing a preference towards plastic-wrapped goods. Commenting in The Grocer, Helen Bird, Strategic Engagement Manager at Wrap, explained: “It is Wrap’s understanding that … sales of packaged goods, particularly fruit and vegetables, are significantly higher”.

Stockpiling and panic buying is one explanation as pre-packaged foods are often perceived to last longer. However, a significant driver is also the belief that packaged items are safer, signalling that consumer attitudes towards single-use plastic might also have softened as people move towards products that feel more hygienic.

With consumers increasingly making choices that they perceive to be virus-safe, companies have also had to make decisions about their policies towards single-use items. At the start of the pandemic, one visible example included cafes, such as Starbucks, which quickly banned the use of reusable cups as a temporary measure to reduce the potential for infection. Whereas some consider this a “better-safe-than-sorry” move, others were more critical, often citing the fact that many stores still accepted cash payments. They also argued that the very fact reusable items can be washed makes them a more hygienic option — especially when compared to plastic surfaces which have been shown to harbour the virus for 72 hours.

People vs the planet?

In the USA, the plastics industry and right-wing thinktanks have been accused by environmental campaigners of lobbying the Government and spreading information that suggests that reusable bags are a higher risk for transmitting coronavirus than plastic bags — effectively pitting people’s health against the environment. Although there hasn’t been such a fierce war of ideology in the UK, Defra did have to respond to suggestions in the media that the delayed ban on single-use plastics came after pressure from the plastics industry, stating that: “This is incorrect — Ministers have decided to delay the ban because of the impact on businesses from the current coronavirus outbreak to avoid additional burdens for firms at this challenging time.”

The future of plastic

It is important to remember that we are in unchartered territory, and in many cases, it is likely that companies can’t do right for doing wrong. In the case of disposable cups, what may seem inconsistent and absurd to one consumer, may be completely justified to another.

However, public opinion can quickly shift, and it is likely that the current resurgence of plastic is no exception, especially given the strength of opinion just three months ago.

For many large companies, their commitments to plastic are continuing. For example, at the height of the lockdown in May this year, Superdrug announced that it had removed all plastic from its own-brand tampons. And in late March, despite growing concerns over the virus, Mondelēz International, who owns the Cadbury brand, announced that it had joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and had become a member of the UK Plastics Pact.

A new way forward

We are undoubtedly living through extraordinary times. Yet, despite this, the current situation should not stop our long-term aims of transitioning to a circular economy. However, as our world has changed, so too must our thinking about how long-term goals need to be achieved.

Three considerations for re-thinking plastics are as follows.

Learn from the experience

The global pandemic has shone a light on weaknesses in our systems, showing that we do not yet have everything in place to move away from problematic, wasteful materials. As well as honouring current commitments, companies could also look to differentiate by providing solutions that address multiple concerns by offering both virus-safe as well as environmentally-friendly products.

Focus on behaviour change

Often, times of uncertainty will create a feeling of fear and heighten people’s perception of risk. The current pandemic is one example where this can lead to a more cautious approach and attempt to exert greater control over a situation — in this case leading to an increase in demand for pre-packaged food. Behaviours such as these can take time to change so it is important to educate consumers about the choices they are making and give them clear facts about what is safe.

Consider if products or services can be re-designed for hygiene

The bring-your-own mug model was designed to allow people to bring their own mugs to places, such as cafes, to limit waste. This has broken down over coronavirus fears, however there are ways to consider preventing this. For example, US-based company Vessel operates a system where you take a mug from a café, drink on the go, and then return to any participating venue where the container is sterilised and re-used.

As well as services, materials and product design will also become important, and these too can be adapted for hygiene.

The long-view for plastics

Ultimately, changing the issues around plastics is a complex problem. As Wrap explains in its Clear on Plastics campaign: “We need to strike a balance between keeping the benefits plastics can bring — such as reducing our carbon footprint and helping to reduce food waste — against the benefits of removing plastics.”

It also explains that: “The overuse of plastic is a global problem requiring massive and systemic action. Change doesn’t happen overnight: it’s complex and challenging. But transformation of the way we make, use and dispose of plastics is already underway.”

Indeed, targets for plastic stretch for many years ahead. Wrap’s Plastic Pact, for example, has set four targets for reduction that stretch until 2025, and the UK Government has committed to eliminating all “avoidable” plastic waste by 2042.

As such, although the coronavirus has resulted in changes to policy and customer behaviour, this short-term change in focus does not need to result in a significant step backwards: plastic may have won this battle, but it certainly hasn’t won the war.