A woman wearing a face mask and a plastic bag pulls a cart loaded with bags of recyclables through the streets of Lower Manhattan in April. Source: CNN

THE NEUTRAL ZONE

Recycling programs across the country have been suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak, from Kentucky to Connecticut to Alabama and beyond. Nearly 5,000 trash pickers in Chile have voiced concerns about the “shocking” drop in recycling and the potential job losses that could come with its end. Other areas such as the U.K. have shown promise of renewed demand, where lines formed outside of reopened recycling centers.

While many states banned single-use plastic bags prior to the pandemic, the outbreak has compelled grocers to enforce rules against reusable bags. Even retailers like Target have removed recycling kiosks for single-use bags.

Medical waste related to the outbreak is also expected to increase plastic pollution. The Polytechnic Institute of Turin in Italy estimates that 1 billion masks and half a billion gloves will be used each month in the country post-lockdown. If 1 percent of those masks are disposed of improperly, 10 million masks could pollute the environment per month, according to a World Wildlife Fund report. The decrease in recycling in lockdown could lead not only to a shortage of glass vials for any forthcoming coronavirus vaccines, but also vaccines in general.

Still, the increase of plastic use does not have to be the harbinger of the end for the environment. In a study from the University of Bath, researchers developed a catalyst to help break down traditional plastics and bioplastics to avoid contamination in the recycling process. Dutch company Avantium designed a new biodegradable plastic made from plant sugars that could decompose in a year. Europe-based Carlsberg Brewery has already committed to using the plastic in a new bottle line, while other companies like Coca-Cola have backed Avantium.

MEDIA PERSPECTIVE

How the coronavirus is reshaping the recycling industry – Boulder Weekly – 5/21/2020
Before the start of the pandemic, approximately 40% of U.S. household waste was packaging and paper products such as plastic containers, aluminum cans, glass bottles and jars, newspaper and cardboard, according to the Product Stewardship Institute. Since the start of the pandemic, however, there’s 20-30% more trash and recycling coming out of households nationally, says Kate Bailey, policy and research director at Eco-Cycle based in Boulder. 

Coronavirus: Plastic recycling firms ‘could go bust due to oil price slump’ – ENDS Report – 5/21/2020
The comments came the week after the Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE) group, representing reprocessing companies, said that if left unchecked, the current situation would make recycling unprofitable and lead to the mass landfilling of recyclable waste in Europe. […] But the price of oil has little effect on the price of recyclable household plastic waste, said Spencer, “meaning we would be selling at considerable losses and risking the future of our long-term businesses”. 

How TerraCycle’s safety and cleaning practices can be adopted across industries – Green Biz – 5/22/2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the safety of reuse into question. But Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, thinks when the crisis is over there will be even more opportunity for reusable packaging and containers to become more commonplace, if done right. “Recycling is going to take a real punch to the face, to be quite fair,” Szaky said during GreenBiz Group’s Circularity 20 Digital event this week, pointing to the continued decrease in oil prices and the pressure that’s putting on the economics of using recycled plastics. “That’s disastrous for the recycling industry, which creates its revenue by selling recycled plastics, which are hedged against, in many ways, the price of oil.”

INFLUENCER PERSPECTIVE

Sue Fennessy on Twitter, 5/21/2020 As we saw with this year’s #EarthDay celebration, we all have to continue to remember that our actions impact the planet every day. In the fight against the virus, we can’t forget to take care of our one and only home, as well. Thanks, @robpicheta.

Institute for Energy Research on Twitter, 5/21/2020: Rather than banning plastic bags, it would be more beneficial for states to re-examine their policies and figure out a better way to dispose of them or recycle them.

Earth Day Network on Twitter, 5/22/2020: 🥊While coronavirus is sweeping our country right now, we shouldn’t forget that climate change, plastic pollution and environmental crisis are not going anywhere! 🍏🌲This is what #GreenCities can do to help during the recovery period

Morgan Clendaniel on Twitter, 5/22/2020: This is a good time to note that when people say “recycling is broken” they are only talking about plastic. Glass and aluminum recycling work really well! Don’t stop recycling those because of scary headlines.

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