Unwrapping the Surge in Plastic

July 1, 2020

More single-serve plastic is being used because of the coronacrisis. That's not good.

The coronacrisis has inspired a new favorite game among us commenter types: “Will This Trend Have Legs?”

The pandemic has inspired, if not forced, some noticeable changes to business and consumer practices related to food. Some of them are quite benign, or at least neutral, like consumers figuring out how to cook their own meals. Others, not so much.

Among the latter we have an increase in single-use plastic, for packaging and other purposes. According to the Wall Street Journal, demand for flexible plastic packaging is predicted to rise 10% this year, compared with 3% last year. Much of that is attributable to supermarkets refusing to put groceries in reusable bags, which is why I have a huge wad of plastic grocery bags in my kitchen that I just can’t bring myself to throw away. Other sources of the increased demand are single-serve condiment envelopes for restaurant takeout/delivery, and wraps for fruit and other produce that used to be sold in bulk.

Now, there are many fine men and women who work in the plastics industry, and I don’t wish in any way to disparage their work. That said, this is problematic.

Flexible film is the kind of plastic least likely to be recycled. It’s often made of two types of plastic (a big no-no in the recycling world) and can’t be handled by conventional recycling equipment. Even if it could, there’s no reason to believe it would achieve a recycling rate above the dismal one (less than 30%) for PET, the most recyclable plastic. And once it gets into the environment, the wind can carry it just about anywhere, including into the ocean.

In many if not most applications, there’s only one reason for single-use plastic to exist: Convenience. Now the coronacrisis has added another: Safety.

Let’s hope that, in the happy days to come when the pandemic no longer poses a danger, companies and consumers will remember that yes, convenience is great, but it’s not worth increasing the amount of the planet’s permanent litter.