Rush for plastic

The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a rush for plastic. From Wuhan to New York, demand for face shields, gloves, takeaway food containers and bubble wrap for online shopping has surged. Since most of that cannot be recycled, so has the waste.

But there is another consequence. The pandemic has intensified a price war between recycled and new plastic, made by the oil industry. It's a war recyclers worldwide are losing, price data and interviews with more than two dozen businesses across five continents show.

Losing the recycling war

The reason: Nearly every piece of plastic begins life as a fossil fuel. The economic slowdown has punctured demand for oil. In turn, that has cut the price of new plastic. Already since 1950, the world has created 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste, 91% of which has never been recycled, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Science.

Most is hard to recycle, and many recyclers have long depended on government support. New plastic, known to the industry as "virgin" material, can be half the price of the most common recycled plastic.

Abandoned promises

The pandemic hit as politicians in many countries promised to wage war on waste from single-use plastics. China, which used to import more than half the world's traded plastic waste, banned imports of most of it in 2018.

The European Union plans to ban many single-use plastic items from 2021. The U.S. Senate is considering a ban on single-use plastic and may introduce legal recycling targets.

Fuelling climate change

Plastic, most of which does not decompose, is a significant driver of climate change. The manufacture of four plastic bottles alone releases the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of driving one mile in a car, according to the World Economic Forum, based on a study by the drinks industry.

The United States burns six times more plastic than it recycles, according to research in April 2019 by Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and former vice chair of the U.S. Federal climate committee.

Creating new, and more plastic

The oil and gas industry plans to spend around $400 billion over the next five years on plants to make raw materials for virgin plastic, according to a study in September by Carbon Tracker, an energy think tank.

This is because, as a growing fleet of electric vehicles and improved engine efficiency reduce fuel demand, the industry hopes rising demand for new plastic can assure future growth in demand for oil and gas. It is counting on soaring use of plastic-based consumer goods by millions of new middle-class consumers in Asia and elsewhere.

Melting permafrost

Even as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented fuel spill that has polluted huge stretches of Arctic rivers was caused by melting permafrost, Russian officials said Friday, ordering a review of infrastructure in vulnerable zones.

Visible from space

The spill, which has coloured remote tundra waterways with bright red patches visible from space, has highlighted the danger of climate change for Russia as areas locked by permafrost for centuries thaw amid warmer temperatures.

A state of emergency

A national-level state of emergency was announced after 21,000 tonnes of diesel fuel spilled from a reservoir that collapsed last Friday. News of the cause of the accident came amid a huge cleanup effort outside the Arctic city of Norilsk which President Vladimir Putin said should be bankrolled by metals giant Norilsk Nickel.

A heated future

A vast Arctic state, Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the world average. Sixty-five percent of the country is covered by permafrost and the environment ministry warned in 2018 that the melt threatens pipes and structures, as well as buried toxic waste, which can seep into waterways.

Race against time

Russia's fisheries agency and some environmentalists have said that the floating barriers erected on the river by responders are unable to stop the majority of the pollution, which can quickly dissolve or sink. The spill also polluted 180,000 square metres of land before reaching the river, regional prosecutors said.

Fatality factor

In fact, things were so dire that if you fell into the River Thames in the 1950s, you would have to be rushed to a hospital to have your stomach pumped as the river was full of untreated sewage.

Thriving water life

After its clean-up, the Thames now supports a huge diversity of fish. The “Great Stink” has become a different place altogether. The Thames is now home to 125 species of fish and more than 400 species of invertebrates living in the mud.

Source: The Economic Times, October 07, 2020