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Can the world be rid of plastics pollution in the COVID-19 age?

Yes, but...

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Recycling plastics was all the rage before the pandemic but with the global collapse of oil prices it has become cheaper to manufacture new plastic than to recycle.

The recycling industry was already struggling to make a profit after China banned imports of the commodity, while commercial recycling - which is more efficient than residential collections - has dried up due to the coronavirus shutdowns.

That made supply tight and increased costs for recyclers, making the price differential with new plastic even worse.

One side effect of the global oil price collapse is that the cost of new plastic (which is made from fossil fuels) has plummeted as well.

"Momentum seems to be moving back to single-use plastic, but I'm hoping it's just temporary," Rob Goodwin, president of OceanCycle, which works to stop ocean-bound plastic, told Bloomberg news agency.

“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.”

As new plastic prices fell, recycled plastic suppliers in Asia lost orders almost overnight. European companies, required by law to use a percentage of recycled plastic in their bottles are some of the only steady sources of demand left.

The bright side

However, recycled materials could be a critical resource as global supply chains face virus-related shocks of their own. And micro-plastics from uncollected waste are still sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor, changing marine habitats in ways we've just begun to study. People may still want to stop that.

That places a Coronavirus bailout policy front-and-centre if a waste-free country is still the goal.

"If governments are going to bailout manufacturers of plastic, and they don't provide any to recycling, then people won't think recycled plastic can be competitive," said Ron Gonen, chief executive of New York recycling infrastructure investment firm Closed Loop Partners.

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