Why the pandemic could slash the amount of plastic waste we recycle

20th July 2020 | Recycling

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the use of plastic medical and protective equipment, such as single-use gloves, masks and aprons. Much of this equipment must be discarded after use to limit the spread of the virus. But demand for plastic packaging has also spiked in the retail sector, as customers wary of catching the virus shun loose products. Elsewhere, people are using antibacterial wipes and bottles of hand sanitiser at a rapid rate, with some worrying that discarded “Covid waste” could soon outnumber jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea.

The market for plastic packaging is projected to grow by 5.5% in 2020, causing a surge in the amount of waste being sent for recycling. But just when its services are needed more than ever, the recycling industry has been rocked by crises.

Plastic waste

International travel and industrial activity dried up with the onset of global lockdowns, causing oil demand and prices to plummet. Since most plastic is made from oil, its falling price has meant the cost of plastic resin production has dropped too, making it cheaper than ever to manufacture new plastic products.

Amid a glut of cheap virgin plastic, petrochemical companies could end up churning out even more to stabilise the demand for crude oil. That would make using recycled plastic material economically foolish, as it would contribute to the oversupply haunting the market. With demand for recycled plastic at a record low, the recycling industry may be left with fewer and fewer buyers. A drop in demand for recycled plastic material would cut into the profit margins of recycling companies. Lower revenue will delay investments in new plants and technologies and limit how effectively the system can improve recycling rates.

For waste management and recycling companies to turn a profit, the taxpayer would have to bear a greater share of their costs. But will this added burden go down well post-pandemic, with cash-strapped local authorities and widespread redundancies?

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