Before the coronavirus pandemic, the plastic bag was in retreat.
Single-use plastics had become the subject of aggressive — and increasingly successful — restrictions. Consumers were becoming mindful of the need to reduce the amount of plastic they used. Companies were switching to more sustainable materials.
Now, rollbacks of regulations, sanitary concerns and the plummeting prices of new plastics threaten to undo years of progress.
"The sustainability debate has been parked for the year," said Rob Gilfillan, a packaging expert with the energy research company Wood Mackenzie.
Recyclers have been hit particularly hard. The recycling industry needs to turn a profit to be able to reprocess some of the plastic people toss into their blue bins. That means selling its reclaimed plastic as a commodity to companies that want to make something new.
But plunging oil prices — the raw material used to make plastic — means recyclers are struggling to compete in a market in which new "virgin" plastic is cheaper to buy than recycled plastic.
"Every day it's harder to make new sales when the virgin keeps going down," said Eadaoin Quinn, director of business development and procurement at EFS Plastics, a recycler with facilities in Listowel, Ontario, and Hazleton, Pennsylvania.
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