Conservancy organisations are warning of a surge in ocean plastic waste caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Demand for single-use plastic in the US is estimated to have increased by 250-300 per cent during the crisis.

Besides increased usage of personal protective equipment, takeaway meals and e-commerce have become even more popular during lockdowns, generating more packaging waste.

Plastic waste flowing into oceans is likely to triple over the next 20 years unless drastic action is taken, according to one study that estimates that government policies and industry-level initiatives may reduce plastic leakage into oceans by only around 7 per cent from the current trajectory by 2040.

The European Commission has proposed a tax of 800 euros a ton on non-recycled plastic packaging waste. The proposal, part of the EU recovery plan, would be the first harmonised plastics tax imposed across the bloc.

However, solving the plastic problem requires more than government taxes and bans. Comprehensive recycling investments, waste-to-energy schemes and alternative materials all have a role to play. Now more unusual solutions are also being investigated.

There are several studies into the use of beetles, worms and enzymes that consume plastic. A recent discovery found that the larvae of the mealworm beetle can eat polystyrene by breaking down the molecular chain and converting it partially into carbon dioxide.

There are also experiments to harvest the bacteria that consume plastic more quickly, and to expand this principle to other polymer types.

Whether or not plastic-eating bugs are the future, with the pandemic compounding the problem, policymakers need to search for new solutions as well as curtailing usage. Companies will face multi-stakeholder pressures to seek plastic alternatives as well as focusing on a transition to a more circular economic model.

First published 27 July 2020.

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