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Freshfields Sustainability

| 5 minutes read

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on phasing out single-use plastics

Millions working from home, pedestrianised roads, increased popularity of cycling, stalled industrial activity and grounded planes have resulted in significant environmental improvements. The lockdown measures have given us cleaner air, reduced congestion and noise pollution as well as a thriving wildlife. However, a dire environmental consequence of the pandemic is undoubtably a mounting waste problem.

Understandably, health and safety measures have caused a significant increase in the uptake of disposable items such as single-use plastic gloves, masks, bags and takeaway catering items. For instance, while restaurants and cafes have closed for in-house services, there has been an increase in takeaway orders and a temporary ban on reusable coffee cups. Supermarkets are also encouraging consumers not to use reusable bags due to concerns around transmission. Andrew King, chief executive of the FTSE 100 packaging supplier Mondi has also stated that the company had seen “an increase across the board in Europe for all types of packaging” in response to stockpiling of items at the start of lockdown as well as an increased need for cleaning products. Record low oil prices (partly due to the pandemic’s effect on demand) have also made plastic cheaper than ever to produce, making it more appealing. The post-coronavirus world will undeniably be very cost-conscious, making this even a more difficult issue to tackle. All of these factors are contributing to the growing waste problem.

The single-use plastics debate 

In the past couple of years, the single-use plastics debate had gained a lot of traction, largely due to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2. The last episode of the series exposed baby birds feeding on plastic, coastlines covered in pollution and a dead baby whale that suffocated from ingesting plastic, causing outrage among the general public. The ‘Attenborough Effect’ caused plastic pollution to plummet, with individuals being compelled to act and businesses being quick to respond to changes in consumer demand. A report from the GlobalWebIndex in 2019 showed 53% of people surveyed in the US and UK reduced their single-use plastic habits over 12 months.

What has changed? The immediate focus of nations around the world is indisputable- tackling the health crisis caused by the pandemic. However, similar to the financial crash of 2008 setting back action on climate policies, campaigners are concerned that the same might happen again, but this time for plastics.

Impact on policy, regulation and behaviour  

Understandably, safety and hygiene concerns have resulted in a number of changes.

  • Temporary ban on reusable items; there has been a temporary ban on the use of reusable items such as coffee cups for takeaway drinks and the 5p plastic bag charge in the UK for online deliveries. In the US, there are similar temporary bans, even though a 5-Cent plastic bag charge was introduced just before the pandemic. The policy push in the US must be driven by local municipalities- with no federal regulation in site. While these bans may be temporary, a relaxation on plastic bans is likely to have long-term consequences for consumer behaviour. Research demonstrates that one of the greatest challenges in promoting sustainable behaviours is to break old habits and establish new ones. The practice of using single-use items risks becoming normalised again.
  • Compulsory use of face masks on public transport; most countries have now imposed mandatory use of face masks on public transport to help control the spread of the virus. While there are some great innovations for reusable masks or “make your own masks”, in reality, most of these masks will be single-use, both due to misconceptions on hygiene and convenience.
  • Single-use plastics bans pushed back; over the coming months, many states and nations were ready to implement bans on single-use plastic items such as straws, stirrers and cotton buds. In the UK, the rollout of a national deposit return system for plastic containers has also had to be pushed back from its original start date of April 2020 to January 2021.

Counter argument 

Environmental campaigners are arguing that the pandemic is being used as an excuse to delay single-use plastic bans. In fact, coronavirus is proven to survive on plastic longer than on any other material. A study published in The New England Journal tested the lifespan of the virus on different surfaces. The virus had vanished from printing and tissue paper only after three hours. After two to four days, it could not be detected on wood, cloth fabric, glass and paper money. The virus survived the longest, for seven days, on stainless steel and plastic. In any case, the main mode of transmission is between individuals, but consumers still remain concerned.

A promising road to recovery?

EU recovery plan proposed tax on single-use plastics; 

the European Commission has recently unveiled its anticipated recovery plan. Concretely, the recovery strategy consists of harnessing the full potential of the EU budget to mobilise investment and frontload financial support in the crucial first years of recovery. The proposals are based on an Emergency Recovery instrument amounting to EUR 750 billion as a complement to ongoing budget flows. One of the areas the Commission is turning to is a single-use plastic tax (which was already under discussion before COVID-19). This proposal is likely to be challenged in a new post-corona world due to many of the issues highlighted in this blog. However, if accepted, it offers many societal, environmental and economic benefits.

What can business do?

It is clear, that with no confirmed date for a coronavirus vaccine launch, for public safety, the need for disposable items will remain high. The focus may need to shift back to producers of goods. Many consumer goods groups have stated that they will stick to their pledges on plastics reduction as part of their sustainability targets. However, many consumer brands may experience difficulty in meeting previous commitments such as replacing all or a percentage of their products with recycled plastic. Consequently, we may see companies return to producing virgin plastic.

A McKinsey report

suggests a three-part response to the crisis; navigate the now, plan for the comeback and shape the next normal. A resourceful packaging company may be able to find a cost-effective and practical sustainable substrate on which the coronavirus has minimal viability. Key players in the industry can also consider using temporary space capacity in factories to scale up plans for new more sustainable packaging, while demand is high.

A great example of businesses stepping up their sustainability commitments includes The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in partnership with the UN Environment Programme, which unites businesses, governments, and other organisations behind a common vision and targets to address plastic waste and pollution at its source. Another example is the End Plastic Waste Alliance where major global companies come together to develop, accelerate and deploy solutions that will unlock investment to help solve the plastic waste crisis.  

It is clear that many businesses are looking for ways to collaborate. It goes without saying that any big sustainability issue is best tackled through a collaborative agreement around industry standards. This will also ensure that one company does not have an unfair advantage over another, for instance around shipping costs. Anti-competition authorities may need to provide special exceptions for this type of collaboration. More details on this can be found in one of our earlier blog posts ‘Green’ competition law- a changing enforcement climate?

“This is the great irony—the world will breathe better but wake up to an even bigger garbage crisis.” Tom Szaky (Founder and CEO of TerraCycle)


sustainability, environment, plastics, waste, recycling, covid-19