Disposable Plastic Consumption and #COVID19

In 2018 the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy, with the participation of New South Wales, Victorian, and Western Australia commissioned the Annual Australian Plastics Recycling Survey. This aimed to provide an overview of the consumption and recycling of plastics in Australia during the 2017–18 financial year.

The key findings for the period were:

  • A total of 3.4 million tonnes of plastics were consumed in Australia.
  • A total of 320 000 tonnes of plastics were recycled, which is an increase of 10 percent from the 2016-17 recovery.
  • In 2017–18, the national plastics recycling rate was 9.4 percent.
  • Of the 320 000 tonnes of plastics collected for reprocessing, 145 700 tonnes (46 percent) were reprocessed in Australia and 174 300 tonnes (54 percent) were exported for reprocessing.

The global picture

At first glance, the Australian situation might seem very poor, and it is, but the recycling of plastics at large is poorly executed globally. Indeed, when I’ve placed my plastic waste in the dedicated collection bin it has been in the anticipation that it would be taken and reused. Now it’s plain, for the most part, this doesn’t happen.

According to Bloomberg Singapore only recycled 4 percent of its plastic waste in 2018.

Singapore only recycled about 4% of its plastic waste last year, according to data published by the National Environment Agency.

The Agency stated that the

recycling rate decreased from 61 percent in 2018^ to 59 percent in 2019. The drop in the overall recycling rate in 2019 is largely attributable to the drop in the recycling rate of paper. The market for recycled paper was affected by shrinking export markets and reduced demand for printing paper from increasing digitalisation. Given that 34% of Singapore’s recyclables are exported, the status of the external market and policy of other countries towards recyclables would have a significant impact on our recycling rate.


Plastic recycling is now down from 6% in 2017, and less than half the recycling rate from five years ago, according to government figures.

I cite Singapore here because of the transparency. Waste and recycling figures are readily available. This is not the case in my home state of New South Wales (NSW), in Australia.

NSW State of the Environment Report 2018

Perusing this report is disappointing in that it’s not easy to make a direct comparison between NSW and Singapore. In part, this problem lies in the numerous local government authorities responsible for waste collection and management.

SoE 2018 provides a snapshot of the status of the main environmental issues facing NSW. The report provides credible, scientifically based environmental information at a statewide level to assist those involved in environmental policy and decision-making and managing the state’s natural resources.The report is structured around six themes – Drivers, Human Settlement, Climate and Air, Land, Biodiversity, Water and Marine. Topics within each theme provide detailed information about the status and trends of specific environmental issues.SoE 2018 identifies that many aspects of the environment are in good condition, including air quality and our coastal environment. Indications that economic growth is decoupling from energy use and CO2emissions are also positive. However, the report also identifies continued environmental challenges in a number of areas, including climate change, an increase in the number of threatened species, increasing transport emissions, and concerns about the health of our native vegetation and rivers. The report has been prepared by the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) in accordance with section 10 of the Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991.

The situation in Singapore

While I’ve not seen much discussion on the impacts of COVID19 lockdowns in Australia on plastic waste, on a small island there seems more consciousness of the problem. In June 2020 Channel News Asia reported:

Takeaway boxes, carriers and cutlery are often used once then thrown away. We’ve seen first-hand how a single takeaway meal for the family results in an astounding amount of waste.

One study from the National University of Singapore Alumni  NUS alumni found households generated an extra 1,334 tonnes of plastic waste during the two month lockdown termed the circuit breaker.

The situation at large

In a study title Challenges and strategies for effective plastic waste management during and post COVID-19 pandemic. The principal findings were:

The COVID-19 pandemic has made plastic waste management more complex. There has been increased use of disposable use of PPE (Personal protective equipment), increased demand for plastic-packaged food and groceries, and the use of disposable utensils.

This increased dependsence on disposable plastic is likely to trigger a new environmental crisis. IN summary the authors write:

Mandating scientific sterilization and the use of sealed bags for safe disposal of contaminated plastic wastes should be an immediate priority to reduce the risk of transmission to sanitation workers. Investments in circular technologies like feedstock recycling, improving the infrastructure and environmental viability of existing techniques could be the key to dealing with the plastic waste fluxes during such a crisis. Transition towards environmentally friendly materials like bioplastics and harboring new sustainable technologies would be crucial to fighting future pandemics. Although the rollbacks and relaxation of single-use plastic bans may be temporary, their likely implications on the consumer perception could hinder our long-term goals of transitioning towards a circular economy. Likewise, any delay in building international willingness and participation to curb any form of pollution through summits and agendas may also delay its implementation. Reduction in plastic pollution and at the same time promoting sustainable plastic waste management technologies can be achieved by prioritizing our policies to instill individual behavioral as well as social, institutional changes. Incentivizing measures that encourage circularity and sustainable practices, and public-private investments in research, infrastructure and marketing would help in bringing the aforementioned changes. Individual responsibility, corporate action, and government policy are all necessary to keep us from transitioning from one disaster to another.

Lecturer, Deakin University writes in The Conversation.

Masks may help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But according to one estimate, if everyone in the United Kingdom used a single-use mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.

More to follow on this topic

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