Pandemic-Induced Spike in Waste Highlights Urgency for Embracing Circular Economy

By Felix Koh, Senior Vice President & Global Business Unit Head, Asia Pulp & Paper

The COVID-19 crisis is generating a rising tide of waste. Some of this increased waste has been driven by pure necessity. Before the current pandemic, we would not have thought much of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, gowns and visors. As it turns out, these simple medical devices have been critical in keeping hospitals operating and protecting medical and frontline workers. These items have been so critical that governments, organisations and individuals have all scrambled to stockpile them at the onset of the pandemic amid global shortages.

Unfortunately, their protective value is in part due to their disposability, designed to be replaced frequently to prevent the spread of the virus. Made from fiber and, crucially, plastics, these devices are presenting a different kind of problem months later. Improperly discarded PPE has been washing up on beaches, or contaminating household recycling.

Navigating a new world of potential risks is also leading to an increase in single-use plastics and paper. Amid the quarantine, many restaurants have rolled out take-out and delivery operations, leading to a pile of disposable utensils and containers. And after making some headway with bans on plastic bags and straws last year, some of the progress has been suspended due to hygiene fears over reusable alternatives.

In each of these cases, recycling is prohibited due to the risk of contamination, or by prohibitive costs.

About 13m tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year. A 2019 study found that global plastic production has quadrupled over the past four decades and if the trend continues, the manufacturing of plastic will make up 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Comparatively, all of the world’s forms of transportation currently represent 15% of emissions.

Plastics break down over time and add to the large accumulation of microplastics in our seas, air and food. As we are producing and discarding plastic to fight a public health crisis, we may be contributing to another, especially if this spike in plastic use becomes the new normal.

There can be no doubt that plastics play a crucial role in our society, but this rapid growth in demand for plastic products challenges us to rethink our problem of plastic waste. It is now more relevant than ever to press forward on the circular economy agenda as the world begins to look beyond the pandemic and toward recovery. It would be all too easy for us to return to old habits and business-as-usual, instead of seizing the opportunity to push toward a more resilient, circular and low-carbon economy.

Plastics are by no means the only cause for concern. Paper, often cited as the alternative to plastics in some areas of packaging, must also re-evaluate its place in a post-COVID society. While paper and other fiber-based products have the benefit of more rapid decomposition and natural bio-circularity (raw materials are replanted after harvesting), the process of production and distribution also has an impact. Trends of over packaging and under recycling can erode paper’s environmental lead.

Following the pandemic, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation proposed two areas ripe for exploration; in medical devices, and the production and distribution of food. Applying circular economy principles could strengthen these fragile global supply chains, improving readiness and reducing the impact of future pandemics.

As illustrated by the shortages of medical equipment around the world, the principles of circularity may provide credible solutions: design and product policy factors such as repairability, reusability and potential for remanufacturing offer opportunities in competitiveness, and more importantly, stock availability. Adaptable design and patterns could also help achieve reductions in material and energy consumption or uncover more efficient alternative materials and processes. By implementing circular economy strategies, we can move forward more confidently, without straying away from our low-carbon commitments.

The transition to a circular economy is no longer an abstract concept. The ways in which a circular model can contribute to the recovery will be more detailed as we progressively gain a better understanding of the economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis.

For paper producers, this means making continued improvements across the entire paper lifecycle, from cultivation, production, product design, recyclability and compostability, to ensure that as little resources as possible is wasted.

Like our response to the pandemic, our response to the issues of circularity and waste will require sustained effort. Our success will rely on the involvement of all stakeholders, coming together in solidarity and common purpose.

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