Pandemic and rise in plastic pollution

The pandemic of 2020 has not been good for the world in many ways and one is the flood of plastic that has been produced to save lives. 

There has been a scramble by governments around the world to buy massive quantities of disposable masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment.

Many countries have imposed lockdowns with many restaurants and cafes closed in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. 

This has led to a rise in takeaway food and drink with more disposable packaging bringing pressure on the environment.

Before the spread of the virus many new regulations were introduced to tackle this growing problem that has caused trouble for some of the biggest users of plastic such as Coca Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo and Colgate Palmolive. These companies and 25 others in October called for a UN treaty on plastic pollution. They have held their hands up acknowledging that their voluntary efforts, mainly focused on recycling, will not be enough to solve the pollution problem.

All these companies cannot afford to comply with the plethora of new regulations countries across the globe are introducing. The number of countries that have introduced bans or taxes on single use plastic items has doubled in five years to 115 countries with another 22 planning to introduce similar new regulations.

According to the Boston Consulting Group plastic is now viewed as the worst material for consumer goods packaging with 65 per cent of consumers associating it with ocean pollution. Asked if plastic is harmful to the environment almost 60pc said plastic is damaging the planet.

The two largest producers of plastic are China and the US. China is the world’s largest plastic producer accounting for nearly one-third of the global plastics production. In the US, the equivalent of 65 trash trucks per day of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean via their land, rivers and coasts and about six times as much municipal plastic waste is burned than is domestically recycled.

Experts believe many more countries would happily get involved in negotiations to sort out this disaster if the US and China would support a new global UN treaty on plastic pollution. A treaty could set out a methodology for countries to measure and report on plastic waste. Presently there is no uniform way of reporting making it very difficult to assess if current initiatives are working.

A UN treaty could also help with the funding of necessary infrastructure particularly in developing countries where systems to support collection and recycling are weak or non-existent. Ellen MacArthur, who set up a charity that works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, said that voluntary initiatives alone are not enough to solve plastic pollution and she believes governments and policymakers have a vital role to play.

A World Economic forum analysis found that 10 river systems carry 90pc of the plastic that flows into the oceans. Eight of these rivers are in Asia and two of them are in Africa. Historically, the developed Western countries exported much of their so-called recyclable plastic waste to China before they banned imports in 2018. This has resulted in waste being shipped to other Asian countries such as Malaysia.

Finally, hopefully the words of nature historian David Attenborough will strike a chord with all of us. He said the “one thing” everyone can do to help save the planet is “don’t waste anything”.

Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at




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