Editor's comment: New role for single-use plastics

We need some flexibility 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

Martin Menachery is editor of Refining & Petrochemicals Middle East.
Martin Menachery is editor of Refining & Petrochemicals Middle East.

I had advocated strongly for a total ban on single-use plastics, in this column, in November 2019. It disseminated a narrative on how single-use plastic items are littering our cities, villages, oceans, and waterways, and contributing to serious health problems in humans and animals. I concluded the column by highlighting the need of the hour as strong political will to phase-out production and use of single-use plastic items within an acceptable timeframe.

But today, the single-use plastics are transforming from a villain to a hero in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. It seems that single-use plastics can literally make the difference between life and death in the current scenario.

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 for flexibility in the implementation of directives banning/regulating single-use plastics and any non-essential regulatory initiatives on plastic products by governments worldwide.

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 have become essential in the fight against novel coronavirus.

As a result, 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. 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. 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.

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 need of the hour is overwhelmingly different from what it was in November 2019. We need some flexibility 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. Definitely, Covid-19 should not become a catalyst for the comeback of single-use plastics. Plastics manufacturing industry worldwide should re-embark on its transition to a circular economy with renewed passion, post-Covid-19.

The industry also needs to think seriously about alternative materials to be developed to replace plastics for the manufacture of essential items like personal protection equipment. Safe disposal of all the single-use plastic items used to combat the Covid-19 pandemic should also become one of our priorities.

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