The plastics industry is booming right now, thanks to the coronavirus

The feedstocks have never been cheaper and the demand has never been greater.

It seems like forever ago when Katherine Martinko wrote Don't let this pandemic ruin the fight against single-use plastics, noting that “The plastics industry is taking advantage of the current crisis to warn people against reusable bags and containers, saying they're potential vectors for contamination and that disposables are a safer option.”

It turns out that she was right to worry; polystyrene sales volumes have increased by double digits. According to Andrew Marc Noel of Bloomberg, “a renewed commitment to hygiene is propping up sales of previously out-of-favor plastics like polystyrene, as consumers relegate environmental priorities while trying to stay clear of the coronavirus.” Apparently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declared the making of some single-use materials as “essential critical infrastructure.”

There is the unavoidable increase in the use of plastics for disposable medical protective gear, but also a dramatic increase in the consumption of single-use plastics. Meanwhile, states are rolling back bans on single-use plastic bags, (New Hampshire actually banned reusable bags) and the big companies are talking up the benefits:

“The value of packaging to keep food safe has sometimes been overlooked,” Charles Heaulme, CEO of Finnish packaging maker Huhtamaki Oyj, said by phone. “It’s clear that there is a problem of plastic waste, but it has tremendous benefits that can’t be matched by alternatives.”

Some companies are promising better recycling; the world's largest maker of polystyrene promises “de-polymerization plants, which break down the material to molecules for reconstituting into a polymer suitable for direct contact with foods.” But as we have noted before, this is a fantasy, since as in conventional recycling now, somebody has to throw it out in the right place, someone has to pick it up and separate it (which was only happening with about 9 percent of plastics before the pandemic) and only then can the magical chemistry start.

As Emily Chasan writes in Bloomberg Green, these promises of a circular, waste-free economy are unlikely to survive this pandemic and the decline in the price of petroleum feedstocks.

Those pledges were seen as key to expanding the recycled plastic market, and not super-expensive to implement. But now, such promises will come with a hefty price tag. One side effect of the global oil price collapse is that the cost of virgin (or new) plastic (which is made from fossil fuels) has plummeted as well. This means it has suddenly become much cheaper to destroy the environment since the price of new plastic is so much cheaper than that of recycled plastic.

petrochemical plant in Houston© Petrochemical plant in Houston/ Mark Felix/ AFP via Getty Images

We should never forget that plastic is essentially a solid fossil fuel and that its manufacture releases six kilograms of CO2 for every kilogram of plastic made. Katherine noted also that “The entire lifecycle of plastic is dangerous — from its extraction to its disposal.” And the desperate oil industry will be doing everything they can to make more of the stuff. Zoë Schlanger recently wrote in Time Magazine:

For now, it seems, the only way for the petrochemical industry to save itself is to try to rapidly expand demand for plastic products worldwide. One way to do that is to push back on plastic bans—as the industry is endeavoring to do…“The world is flooded with plastic already, and it seems that supply is going to continue to grow, and they will do everything they can to find markets for that output—especially if the whole oil industry is betting on petrochemicals and plastics to save their businesses,” says Bauer, from Lund University. “I’m afraid we’re going to drown in it.”

Zero-waste activists are going to have a fight on their hands.

The feedstocks have never been cheaper and the demand has never been greater.