Until the novel coronavirus started its spread across the globe, 2020 appeared to be a year when meaningful plastic-use restrictions would finally take hold. A growing list of consumer companies—including Coca-Cola Co., which produces about 117 billion plastic bottles each year—had set targets to reduce their reliance on plastic packaging. France prohibited single-use plastic plates, cups, and cutlery starting January 1, and England will enact restrictions on plastic straws and stirrers starting in April. On March 1, New York joined a number of other cities around the world in banning the distribution of plastic shopping bags by retailers.
The virus plays right into the industry’s strong suits: disposability and hygiene. A new report released by BloombergNEF last week found that, in the short run at least, the fears of plastics opponents might be valid. “Concerns around food hygiene due to Covid-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity, undoing some of the early progress made by companies,” the report stated. Researchers found the greatest spikes in demand for face masks and the thin film used in plastic wraps.
Plastics lobbying groups such as Plastics Industry Association and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) have long defended their products by noting that plastic has played a revolutionary role in medical care. Single-use surgical gloves, syringes, insulin pens, IV tubes, and catheters, for example, have both reduced the risk of patient infection and helped streamline operations by lifting the burden of sterilization.