As lockdown measures begin to ease around the world, we are finally beginning to see the impact of the Coronavirus crisis on worldwide plastic pollution levels. Many thought that this time off for our planet would make things better, but that is simply not the case.
Before the crisis went into full swing and most economies around the world shut their doors, there were announcements from the likes of Unilever, Coca-Cola and Nestle committing to reducing virgin plastic usage and to recycling more and more of what they produce. Governments were rolling out bans on single use plastics around the world. Increasingly, people were waking up to the dangers of plastic pollution and demanding that we take responsibility for our waste and that we stop polluting. Momentum was building towards a world without single use plastics and oceans free from the blight of ocean plastic pollution.
Now, all this could be set to change and even to reverse. Not only have the headlines moved away from: “Uninhabited island found covered in plastics” and “More plastic than fish in the sea by 2050” but in many ways the plastic situation is already getting worse and the stage is set for it to deteriorate.
The Coronavirus has caused a significant collapse in worldwide markets. The price of crude oil has fallen significantly. Virgin plastic is cheaper to produce today than has been the case in the past five years. With the price of petrol having collapsed, the gap between recycled and new materials has widened, making new plastics much more financially attractive. To make matters worse, the increased demand for recycled materials has driven their price up making them even more unaffordable when compared to the new and reduced costs of buying virgin plastics.
To protect people from the virus we have banned the use of reusable coffee cups, upped the production of face masks and increased plastic packaging of food goods. These are all sensible measures to halt the spread of the disease and minimise loss of life. Yet already we are seeing headlines from the Guardian declaring there are more masks than jellyfish in the sea and a scientific report telling us we may be underestimating ocean plastic pollution by as much as half!
The seas are not getting cleaner, quite the contrary. Beach cleans have been cancelled but we are throwing away more plastic than ever. The economic downturn faced by most companies will see them cutting costs where they can. With virgin plastic being so cheap and recycled plastic comparatively so expensive, how many brands will stick to their sustainability commitments once the financial pressure really starts building? The value of the word of these corporations will be exposed if they come back on their promises in the name of financial gain.
There is an opportunity to rebuild properly. To redistribute power towards those with ethics and environment at the source of what they do. Now more than ever, the consumer is needed to drive change. We can rebuild a cleaner future if we decide to put the emphasis on it, to support green start-ups, to oppose polluting conglomerates and to be responsible for our plastic consumption.
As the economy reopens small businesses driving the change will need support from consumers who care about the future of our oceans. Brands fighting ocean plastic pollution are everywhere, from the likes of Ocean Bottle to NuOceans, there are many start-ups worth supporting.
Nobody can make a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he can do only little. Now more than ever is when we collectively need to use our voices (and wallets) for good.
Flavio Affinito is the founder of NuOceans a start-up that creates 100% recycled & recyclable sandals made from ocean plastic.