Are single-use plastic items making a comeback?

In the fight against Covid-19 pandemic, an unexpected hero is emerging, which would have been considered as a villain by a large section of the society in the absence of the unprecedented health crisis created by the new virus. It seems that single-use plastics can literally make the difference between life and death in the current scenario. Are single-use plastics – the movement towards the phase-out which was gaining momentum around the world before Covid-19 pandemic – staging a comeback?

The drive towards the phase-out of single-use plastics was gaining momentum around the world before the Covid-19 pandemic. Are these materials literally becoming the difference between life and death in the global fight against novel coronavirus? (Image courtesy: LANXESS; image for illustration only )
The drive towards the phase-out of single-use plastics was gaining momentum around the world before the Covid-19 pandemic. Are these materials literally becoming the difference between life and death in the global fight against novel coronavirus? (Image courtesy: LANXESS; image for illustration only )

The Covid-19 pandemic is severely devastating our entire society, global economy and industries. From personal protection equipment to medical devices, plastic products play a critical role in the fight against the fast-spreading virus. There are many more applications and solutions, which significantly contribute to the functioning of our society, economy and industries during this unprecedented crisis.

From packaging for food, disinfectants and soaps, to cleaning equipment, anti-bacterial vinyl flooring for hospitals, medical packaging, components for ventilators, bottles, lids, and visors, as well as vital products such as refuse sacks, recycling sacks, clinical waste sacks, gloves and aprons, plastic solutions are essential in the fight against novel coronavirus.

“With more and more businesses being ordered to close during the pandemic crisis, it is critical that healthcare workers have access to plastic products. Single-use plastics can literally be the difference between life and death. Items such as IV bags and ventilator machines, which are of the utmost importance right now, have components made of single-use plastics,” said Tony Radoszewsk, president and CEO, Plastics Industry Association.

“The single-use hospital gowns, gloves, and masks that protect our healthcare workers every day are also made of plastic. I would venture to say that every machine, piece of medical care equipment, hospital bed, examination scope and tool has a component made of plastic, most of which are moulded to exacting tolerances, which is possible due to the resin and the machinery being used.”

“Single-use plastics can literally be the difference between life and death. Items such as IV bags and ventilator machines, which are of the utmost importance right now, have components made of single-use plastics,” says Tony Radoszewsk, president and CEO, Plastics Industry Association.

Flexibility on regulations on single-use plastics

Currently, worldwide plastics converting industry is working overtime to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 pandemic. Some of the strongest plastic industry associations have already advocated flexibility in the implementation of directives banning/regulating single-use plastics and any non-essential regulatory initiatives on plastic products by governments worldwide.

“This is also the reason why EuPC, in a recently published open letter sent to the European Commission, advocated that the implementation of the Single-Use Plastics Directive as well as any non-essential regulatory initiatives in the Member States should be put on hold until the situation in Europe has normalised. The industry now needs this stability to be able to continue all its efforts to fight the pandemic and avoid bankruptcies and job losses,” explained Alexandre Dangis, managing director, European Plastics Converters (EuPC), who was interviewed on 14 April 2020 by international TV stations, according to a recent media statement by the industry body.

Globally, plastics manufacturers are under tremendous pressure from the demand for plastic products urgently needed for the fight against Covid-19. Many of the plastics companies have managed to alter their typical manufacturing schedules to produce essential products at a rapid pace.

It is worth mentioning here that some plastic manufacturers have opted for 24/7 production schedule and are using innovations like the Intouch i4 Cloud, which empower them to leave the machinery totally unmanned during the weekend, increasing production while keeping the staff safe. Another important point to note is that despite commercial pressures on their own businesses, some companies are providing the plastic product supplies to health authorities at cost price.


“This is also the reason why EuPC, in a recently published open letter sent to the European Commission, advocated that the implementation of the Single-Use Plastics Directive as well as any non-essential regulatory initiatives in the Member States should be put on hold until the situation in Europe has normalised,” comments Alexandre Dangis, managing director, European Plastics Converters (EuPC).

Response from industry leaders
INEOS announced its intention to produce one million bottles of hand sanitiser per month from each of the three new facilities to address to resolve the European shortage. The new product will be manufactured according to the specifications of the World Health Organization and will be specially designed to kill bacteria and viruses.

SABIC has launched a non-chlorinated and non-brominated opaque sheet, LEXAN CLINIWALL AC6200. The sheet aims to provide a hygienic, sanitary solution for interior surfaces to several industries around the world.The launch comes as the rising need for infection prevention and sanitation control across the world continues to increase. Typical industries for the solution include hospitals, clinics, homes for the elderly, primary care centres, sterile rooms, laboratories, pharmaceutical factories, industrial kitchens, storage rooms and refrigeration facilities, schools, restrooms, airports, bus stops, train stations, and sports centres.

Nippon Paint and Corning Inc have developed a special coating to protect workers from picking up viruses from painted surfaces. Nippon Paint's Antivirus Kids Paint, developed specifically for frontline hospital use, incorporates Corning Guardiant Antimicrobial Particles – a nascent technology designed to safeguard against viruses from adhering to hospital surfaces.Experts estimate that viruses can remain viable on some surfaces for several days, depending on environmental conditions.

In additional efforts, companies not previously involved in the manufacture of personal protection equipment, or medical devices are changing their production lines to provide these much-needed products.

To help address the urgent need for personal protective equipment among healthcare professionals battling the Covid-19 pandemic, Dow has developed a simplified face shield design and is sharing its design through an open-source file to help accelerate production rates of this critically needed personal protective equipment. In addition, the company is collaborating to produce 100,000 face shields for donation to the state of Michigan for distribution to hospitals.

Dow does not typically fabricate plastic products for consumer end-use. However, the company quickly developed the resin film technology for these face shields through its prototyping and fabricating capabilities at its Pack Studios application development facility in Freeport, Texas. Dow also worked with other value chain partners to identify a fabricator for the foam comfort strip that enables the shield to be worn comfortably.

ExxonMobil said it has increased production of critical raw materials for masks, gowns and hand sanitisers used by medical professionals and first responders leading the efforts to combat the global Covid-19 pandemic.The company has increased its capability to manufacture specialised polypropylene, used in medical masks and gowns, by about 1,000 tonnes per month, which is enough to enable production of up to 200 million medical masks, or 20 million gowns.Monthly production of isopropyl alcohol – a key ingredient in many disinfectant and hand sanitiser products – has been increased by 3,000 tonnes, which is enough to enable production of up to 50 million four-ounce bottles of medical-grade hand sanitiser.


“The plastics industry is vital in the fight against Covid-19. Despite the challenges every business is facing right now, we have been helping to feed the nation, protect key workers and supply a wide range of essential medical supplies, including components for ventilators,” remarks Philip Law, director general, British Plastics Federation.

Disposable plastic bags
Securing smooth functioning of global supply chains for food and other essential commodities is a crucial factor in this crisis, in which plastic packaging plays an important role in keeping food fresh during. As the majority of people work from home, panic buying and the change in consumer behaviour present continuous challenges for the packaging industry, which is working hard to overcome those.

“The plastics industry is vital in the fight against Covid-19. Despite the challenges every business is facing right now, we have been helping to feed the nation, protect key workers and supply a wide range of essential medical supplies, including components for ventilators. I am proud of how our industry has stepped up and shown its true colours during this time of crisis,” commented Philip Law, director general, British Plastics Federation, in an article recently published in the federation’s website.

Meanwhile, disposable plastic bags are staging a strong comeback as many people fear that reusable bags could spread Covid-19 virus. This situation is against the backdrop of grocery stores being one of the few places still open worldwide during the pandemic lockdowns.

The movement towards the phase-out of single-use plastic items was gaining further momentum around the world before Covid-19 pandemic. After prolonged bitter campaigns, environmentalists seemed to be winning the fight against single-use plastics in recent years. A growing number of cities, facilities and governments banned single-use plastic bags in an endeavour to mitigate plastic waste.

For example, as of 1 March, single-use plastic bags are officially banned in New York State. The law prohibited retail stores from providing single-use plastic bags. Dubai Airports banned single-use plastic items such as plastic knives and forks, straws and shopping bags, from consumer spaces from 1 January 2020. Canada plans to ban ‘harmful’ single-use plastics as early as 2021.

Unfortunately, the global spread of Covid-19 made people cautious about coming in close contact with others and their belongings, including reusable bags despite no evidence about reusable bags spreading the novel coronavirus. On 31 March, New Hampshire became the first state in the US to temporarily ban reusable bags during the pandemic.In San Francisco, reusable shopping bags – earlier a testimony to the city’s vibrant commitment to sustainability – have been outlawed. And, from Maine to Hawaii, regulations on plastic bags have been suspended, or postponed.

According to World Health Organization, the most important thing to know about coronavirus on surfaces is that they can easily be cleaned with common household disinfectants that will kill the virus. Studies have shown that the Covid-19 virus can survive for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel, less than four hours on copper and less than 24 hours on cardboard.

As per WHO guidelines on grocery shopping, the shopper should keep at least one-metre distance from others and avoid touching the eyes, mouth and nose. If possible, sanitise the handles of shopping trolleys, or baskets before shopping. Once home, wash the hands thoroughly and also after handling and storing the purchased products.There is currently no confirmed case of Covid-19 transmitted through food, or food packaging.


“For years, the plastics industry has pushed industry-funded research to try to discredit the movement to end single-use plastic pollution. And when Covid-19 began to spread, they saw it as an opportunity to strike and activate their network of pro-plastic surrogates,” opines Ivy Schlegel, plastics research specialist, Greenpeace USA.


The other side of the story
Meanwhile, Greenpeace USA recently released a research brief detailing the ways the plastics industry is exploiting people’s fears around Covid-19. According to the brief, the plastics industry and its surrogates have utilised older industry-funded studies to publish op-eds and stories claiming that reusables are somehow more dangerous than other options in grocery stores and elsewhere, despite new research from the National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA, and Princeton University showing that Covid-19 can live on plastic surfaces longer than others, for as long as two to three days.

The brief further states that this plastics industry PR push has been executed by organisations like the Manhattan Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the American Energy Alliance, using research underwritten by companies like Novolex – one of the largest manufacturers of plastic film and packaging in the USA – and front groups like the American Chemistry Council, which represents the world’s largest fossil fuel and chemical companies.

“At a time when people need factual medical research to inform their decisions around protecting their families, the plastics industry has worked to exploit our fears for profits,” remarked Ivy Schlegel, plastics research specialist, Greenpeace USA. “For years, the plastics industry has pushed industry-funded research to try to discredit the movement to end single-use plastic pollution. And when Covid-19 began to spread, they saw it as an opportunity to strike and activate their network of pro-plastic surrogates. Now more than ever, we need independent guidance from medical professionals to inform our decisions around hygiene and shopping. People’s safety should come before profits.”

Against the backdrop of the Greenpeace USA research brief mentioned earlier, the following statement from Chris Jahn, president and CEO, American Chemistry Council, in response to the virtual G20 summit, is worth mentioning: “US chemicals manufacturers are calling for G20 leaders to increase international coordination and prioritise multilateral responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Healthcare workers and workers in essential industries around the globe are in dire need of products and equipment that can help save lives, and chemicals and plastics have been recognised for their critical role in efforts to ramp up the production and distribution of those products.”

“Life-saving products belong in the hands of the heroes who are saving lives – both in the United States and around the globe. We urge G20 leaders to fortify the global supply chains that make these products possible by lifting tariffs and export restrictions and avoiding barriers to trade that will otherwise impede efforts to save lives.”


“Healthcare workers and workers in essential industries around the globe are in dire need of products and equipment that can help save lives, and chemicals and plastics have been recognised for their critical role in efforts to ramp up the production and distribution of those products,” observes Chris Jahn, president and CEO, American Chemistry Council.

The need of the hour
As our society is bravely facing the Covid-19 pandemic, and its catastrophic impact on human life, industry and economy, the industry and governments need to direct their complete resources and attention to the management of the crisis, and mitigation of its further spread. Definitely, it is time to put on hold all inessential activities to focus on the wellbeing of people around the world in the next 12 months. We need to remain confident that we can rebuild what needs to be rebuilt after this unprecedented crisis.

The need of the hour is someflexibility in the implementation of directives banning/regulating single-use plastics and any non-essential regulatory initiatives on plastic products by governments worldwide until we come out completely from the Covid-19 pandemic. But, Covid-19 should not become a catalyst for the comeback of single-use plastics. Worldwide, plastics manufacturing industry should re-embark on its transition to a circular economy with renewed passion, post-Covid-19.

The industry also need to think seriously about alternative materials to be developed to replace plastics for the manufacture of essential items like personal protection equipment, in a hypothetical scenario of similar health crises in the future. Another very important factor that requires the attention of the industry and governments is the safe disposal of all the single-use plastic items used to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

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