TSC Thursdays is a weekly TSC blog post with top trending news and issues pertaining to UN Sustainable Goals. TSC’s SDG COVID Impact Dashboard applies our proprietary models and methodologies to filter the global chatter through a dynamic issue taxonomy to track and visualize COVID-19's impact across 17 SDGs in real-time.

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TSC's SDG COVID Impact Dashboard highlights "Responsible Consumption" and "Marine Pollution" as this week’s strongest emerging topic. Early lockdowns proved a respite for the environment - the air was cleaner, worldwide emissions dropped by 26% and biodiversity thrived. However, with every blessing comes a burden. The COVID-19 crisis has unleashed a plastic pandemic and is expected to reverse decades of progress against the use of single-use plastics worldwide. What needs to be done to get us back on track, and who will guide us there?

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Single-use plastics: the key partner to the global health response and "New Normal"?

According to WHO statistics, the world needs 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million protective goggles every month to supply the global Covid-19 medical response efforts. This is excluding the use of such gear by the general public. In the United Kingdom alone, 1 billion surgical face masks were handed out between February and April this year. Most of this gear is made from single-use plastic, one of the main culprits of global plastics pollution due to its non-recyclable nature.

This type of plastic is currently not only making waves in the medical sector but also in our households. When lockdowns kept customers tied to their dinner tables at home, restaurants resorted to plastic food containers to continue to serve dishes through delivery services. Supermarkets have started wrapping bread and prepared items separately for hygienic purposes. The new "work from home" default led to an increase in house-hold generated waste, and the quarantine economy has driven more people to order goods - whether essential or not - online, resulting in greater packaging waste from deliveries.

Just when consumers across the globe started to become more aware of the environmental impacts of single-use plastics and increasingly more comfortable with its more sustainable available alternatives, the pandemic seems to have set us back to square one. Who will step up to drive us back in the right direction?


Plastic manufacturers are the main beneficiaries of the pandemic. will they strengthen their position post-COVID?

Single-use plastic has been increasingly scrutinized over the past years, due to increased consumer awareness of its environmental impact and stricter regulation on its production and use. However, there is a widely-shared perception by restaurants, e-commerce giants and the like that single-use plastics are the most ideal solution to handle the ever-rising volumes of orders and deliveries. They are cheap and readily-available. Some like to add that this type of packaging is also advantageous from a hygienic standpoint, which might have been the final push to render it the default for many amid the pandemic. As a result of the steep demand globally, most manufacturers are now raising production, and some have recorded as high as 33% increase in sales in the first quarter of this year.

In the midst of this pandemic, we may have seem to forget that many of the industry players have committed to curb the use of virgin plastic. Will they remain true to their promises, emphasizing on the use of sustainable and recyclable alternatives, or fall back to the cheap alternative?


Will the loosening of commitments restrictions reverse the single-use-plastic curbing trend?

Over the past years, regulators across the globe have responded to public concerns on the impact of packaging, especially single-use plastics. As a result there has been a wave of regulations addressing both the environmental impact and waste management process. However, the pandemic has proven a roadblock to progress in this regard, and may even prove a setback. The State of New York has repeatedly postponed a plastic bag ban originally due to take effect on March 1 since there is an assumption that reusable bags are unsanitary and may contribute to the spread of the disease unless they are washed. In some US cities, recycling programmes had been paused as they were not considered part of essential services, while parts of virus-hit Italy and Spain also put a hold on recycling.

Voluntary initiatives had picked up as well, in some countries retailers and supermarkets were at the forefront to change consumer perception discouraging the use of single-use items or promoting their alternatives. This seems to have been reversed as well, for example in UK supermarkets the 5 pence charge for plastic shopping bags has been suspended in order to "speed home deliveries and protect drivers against possible infection".

Experts argue that this is a pivotal moment to reeducate consumers about the safety of reusable options now and post-COVID. Given the complexity of the situation, a cross-sectoral stakeholder coalition of governments and local authorities, NGOs, and industry players is required to step up to make this happen.


Mapping the key advocates pushing to keep the movement on track

Navigating debates around an issue like plastics can be a daunting task, especially today. It is a highly fast-developing topic relevant to a very interconnected network of stakeholders, which is facing many risks, challenges but also key to unlocking plenty of opportunities going forward.

The SDG Impact Platform alerted us on some of this week's trending global debates on responsible consumption, marine pollution and plastics. TSC’s Atium mapping software allowed us to organize this week's debates, generate instant machine-generated sentiment analysis on the key findings and initiatives, and identify the interconnected network of drivers and advocates in this space.

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  1. Sierra Club calls out the Big Plastics sector for environmental racism: Hop Hopkins, Sierra Club's Director of Strategic Partnerships, wrote in his article, "Racism Is Killing the Planet," that "existing and proposed petrochemical facilities are clear cases of environmental racism at its worst". He highlights that disadvantaged communities residing in the vicinity of these plants are more prone to the deadly consequences of COVID due to their exposure to fine particulate air pollution. He calls for more scrutiny of so-called Big Plastics, who have lobbied for rollbacks on environmental protections and enforcement, and asked for a $1 billion dollar bailout. (here)

  2. Sentiment: Negative—strong criticism of chemical manufacturers and US Government
  3. Stakeholder in the spotlight: Sierra Club
  4. Experts call for the use of sustainable alternatives to single-use protective equipment: Innovation is stepping up, providing amongst others biodegradable and compostable masks for the medical sector. Experts call for the general public to wear cloth masks instead of single-use surgical masks. (here)

  5. Sentiment: Slightly positive—confirming the problems posed by single-use protective gear, but highlighting innovation focused on environment-friendly options for the medical sector and availability of reusable alternatives for the general public
  6. Stakeholders in the spotlight: Terra Cycle, March for the Ocean
  7. Retailers partner with NGOs to design a sustainable alternative to plastic retail bags: To reduce the plastic footprint of the entire shopping industry, major retailers, including CVS Health, Target and Walmart, have partnered with Conservation International and the Ocean Conservancy to design a sustainable alternative to plastic retail bags.

  8. Sentiment: Positive
  9. Stakeholders in the spotlight: Ocean Conservancy, Conservation International
  10. Businesses have an opportunity to adopt reuse business models and trigger more awareness: A recent PwC research shows consumers want businesses to preserve some of the unexpected environmental benefits accruing from pandemic lockdowns, businesses have an opportunity to engage consumers about the safety of reusable plastic. Tom Szaky, CEO of Loop and TerraCycle, has been pointing out that there’s no reason to believe that disposable systems are safer than reusable ones. (here)

  11. Sentiment: Positive—indication of a positive trend on businesses and consumer's perception of reusables and their key role to play
  12. Stakeholders in the spotlight: Terra Cycle, Closed Loop
  13. The American Chemistry Council's recycling lobbying raises eyebrows: the industry lobbying group has promoted state-level legislation on chemical recycling to be expanded nationwide. Bills easing regulations on chemical recycling facilities have already been passed in eight states and introduced in at least five more. This is not recycling,” said a statement from GAIA. “It is an expensive and complicated way to burn fossil fuels.” Andrew Neil Rollinson, a chemical engineer and specialist in alternative thermal conversion technologies who contributed analysis to the GAIA report, called chemical recycling a “dangerous distraction” from more effective measures to curb plastic pollution, beginning with a ban on single-use and unnecessary plastic. (here)

  14. Sentiment: Negative—criticism on chemical recycling as solution proposed by the fossil fuel industry
  15. Stakeholders in the spotlight: American Chemistry Council, GAIA
  16. Breaking the Plastic Wave Report calls for immediate and sustained action: A new analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ finds that without immediate and sustained action, the annual flow of plastic into the ocean could nearly triple by 2040. But the study also identifies solutions that could cut this volume by more than 80 percent using technologies that are available today, if key decision-makers are willing to make system-wide changes, including its production, collection, consumption, and disposal/recycling. The report finds that current commitments by government and industry will reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean only by 7 percent by 2040. (here)

  17. Sentiment: Positive—strong focus on the technological and policy solutions available
  18. Stakeholders in the spotlight: The Pew Charitable Trust, SYSTEMIQ
  19. UNCTAD calls for effective trade rules to help limit (plastic) waste: According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), effective trade rules can help to limit the waste volumes caused by COVID-response. UNCTAD is urging governments and businesses to identify non-fossil fuel plastic substitutes, which are non-toxic, biodegradable or easily recyclable materials including glass, ceramics, natural fibres, paper and cardboard. (here)

  20. Sentiment: Slightly negative—besides the proposal of a solution, the lack of governmental action focus on a trade level is highlighted
  21. Stakeholder in the spotlight: UNCTAD
  22. Lombard Odier and Plastic Bank launch partnership to help reduce marine pollution: The Swiss private bank and the Canadian social enterprise are partnering up to pioneer a solution to supporting the collection of plastic waste in underserved communities and create jobs and long-term value for collectors in developing countries. (here)

  23. Sentiment: Positive—highlighting a solution for positive environmental and social impact
  24. Stakeholders in the spotlight: Lombard Odier, Plastic Bank
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