Threats like pandemics and environmental crises often progress with non-linear trends—starting small and escalating exponentially—and are especially difficult to confront because they require us to interpret and react to change in real-time.
While the most effective approach would be to take decisive actions early, at a time when the threat might still be perceived as small, the challenge is that success could make strong measures seem an overreaction—a situation policymakers usually prefer to avoid.
Although the scientific community had been warning of the risks of the coronavirus for weeks, the early stages of the pandemic didn’t look or feel like a potential global disaster. Initial lockdowns were met with skepticism by both the general public and many policymakers. Governments around the world only started to act when domestic cases had begun to rise exponentially, which, in hindsight, proved to be too late.
The overall impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are still difficult to quantify, but the economic, social, and even environmental ramifications are sure to be felt for decades to come. The pandemic has significantly altered dynamics and changed priorities, impeding progress on long-established sustainability goals, including efforts to curb addiction to single-use petroleum-based plastics.
Demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), safety screens, and single-use plastic products such as takeout containers, plastic bags, and packaging has skyrocketed. Regulators have postponed or lifted plastic bans, prohibited consumers from using reusable items, and interrupted recycling services to prevent cross-contamination.
There is no doubt that plastic has molded society in many ways that make the lives of many people easier and safer. Today, a world without plastic is almost unimaginable. But while durability and inexpensiveness—two of plastic’s greatest assets—have made it the workhorse material of modern society, they have also become its greatest curse by creating a global environmental and sustainability crisis. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste have been produced worldwide to date, the vast majority of which ended up in landfills or the environment; 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans each year, an amount that will triple by 2040, and if the world stays on this trajectory, then there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.
While up to now, the strategy to address the challenges associated with plastic production and use has been mainly based on a “3Rs” approach: reduce, reuse, and recycle, the ongoing pandemic has demonstrated an increasingly critical need for a systemic transformation, based on innovation, sustainability, and resilience.
Achieving a long-term sustainable future for plastic will require integration along the entire value chain, from design to reuse, together with the transition to a truly circular economy—where a product’s end-of-life is taken into consideration from the moment it is developed and resources are reused instead of being continuously consumed.
At the same time, regulators need to introduce incentives for producers to make plastic products that are more easily recyclable; improve and harmonize existing collection and recycling systems; mandate recycling targets and percentages of recycled materials in new products; and most importantly build demand for bioplastic through policies like renewable plastic standards. Like renewable portfolio standards requiring electricity suppliers to provide customers with a stated minimum percentage of electricity from eligible renewable resources, renewable plastic standards should be designed to increase the sustainability of plastic products.
Technological factors, commercial considerations, and consumer behavior have created a global plastic pollution crisis. We must act decisively before the world’s addiction to plastic escalates into a plastic pandemic. The impact of the coronavirus on sustainability should not be underestimated and all stakeholders need to decide their role in the transition to a circular economy for plastics.
Nicola De Blasio is a Senior Fellow and expert in technology innovation with Harvard Kennedy School's Environment and Natural Resources Program. Phoebe Fallon is a student at Harvard University concentrating in Environmental Science and Public Policy.