Plant-Based Plastics Should Be Part of the COVID-19 Fight

There can be no question that Covid-19 has changed our world and re-shaped our priorities. Part of this shift includes a renewed demand for, and appreciation of, single-use products. According to a recent Bloomberg article, the plastics industry is riding this wave to self-proclaimed hero status. But the increased demand for single-use products, spurred by their sanitary benefits, does not mean that we should simply settle for a permanent reversion to the old ways. As we seek to recover from the effects of this pandemic, it’s important that we do not lose sight of the environmental crises that loom ahead.

We can both combat the COVID-19 pandemic and remain focused on achieving a sustainable future. The use of plant-based plastics can help us get there while keeping us safe. That’s because they provide the same sanitary benefits as traditional plastics with added environmental benefits. They are durable, clean, and can be responsibly disposed of after use. But plant-based plastics have the added benefit of being made with renewable sources that remove carbon from the atmosphere, instead of petroleum products that make the problem worse.

With proper disposal and improved waste management infrastructure, most plant-based products can be further broken down and either composted or recycled into new material, helping us achieve a circular economy while reducing pressure on overtaxed waste management systems.  

One of the biggest challenges that will need to be managed in the post-COVID world is the strain on traditional waste and recycling streams. As Bloomberg reports:

The difficulty posed by plastic recycling was once easy to ignore: China simply took it off our hands. From 1992 to 2017 the country received roughly 45% of the world’s recyclable plastic. But after 25 years, China reached its limit. Much of what it received from other countries was too contaminated to use, officials said. And its own population was now generating more plastic waste than it could process.

Recycling programs struggled to absorb the excess capacity and were already weakened by the time the coronavirus began to spread.

Adopting plant-based products, and investing in proper composting and recycling infrastructure, can help to alleviate the burden on traditional waste management streams. This is particularly salient for food packaging and containers that are often excluded from the recycling stream due to contamination by food waste. Composting welcomes that organic material, so compostable food packaging can break down alongside food waste.

According to Bloomberg, plastics lobbyists have been everywhere during the pandemic, touting the role their products play in keeping food, health-care workers, and families safe.” Indeed, the industry has been eager to take advantage of the fear and uncertainty around the pandemic to improve consumer perception. As the New York Times notes:

Even before the virus outbreak, an industry-funded group had worked with local lawmakers to block local actions to reduce plastic, proposing model legislation designed to pre-empt bans on disposable bags, boxes, cups, and bottles in the name of protecting businesses and consumer choice.

But these campaigns offer a false choice. The truth is we don’t have to sacrifice sustainability for the sake of hygiene. Many plant-based products offer the same hygienic and performance benefits while also moving forward, not backward, on sustainability goals.

On top of increased demand for durable and hygienic options, we cannot forget that public demand for green alternatives to legacy plastic is stronger than ever. More than two out of three consumers say environmentally friendly packaging is important in their purchasing decisions. It is the duty of all stakeholders to advocate for consumers and encourage the transition to a circular economy.

As we adapt to a “new normal” in the aftermath of COVID-19, the adoption of plant-based products is the solution that best meets consumer needs while maintaining progress toward a circular economy and reducing the burden on our waste management system. So let’s use this pandemic as an opportunity to move forward, not back.