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Reuters Reporter On The Rise Of Single-Use Plastic During The Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Face shields, takeout food containers, bubble wrap for online orders, plastic bags from grocery deliveries - think about how much people around the world are relying on mountains of plastic to get through this pandemic. Well, much of that plastic is not recyclable. And even if it were, the demand for recycled plastic is down. Plastic is made from petrochemicals, and the price of oil is so low that the price of brand-new plastic, known as virgin plastic, is low, too.

Reuters investigative reporter Joe Brock has been connecting the dots in this other pandemic, this plastic pandemic. And he joins us now. Welcome.

JOE BROCK: Glad to be here.

CHANG: So paint us a picture here. What was the trend for single-use plastics before the coronavirus pandemic?

BROCK: Before the pandemic, the demand for single-use plastic was was going up but particularly the case in developing countries where you've got a rising middle class - the pandemic only exacerbated that trend.

CHANG: And one thing that your investigation found was that big oil companies are hoping for a continually rising demand for new plastic, which is also made from fossil fuels. So they see that as a growth opportunity for their industry, right?

BROCK: That's correct. You know, you've seen oil and gas companies struggling during the pandemic as the oil price has dropped. But there's also a longer-term trend as we move towards electric vehicles, greener energy. There is an abundance of cheap oil and gas, and that needs to go somewhere for these companies to remain successful. And one of the key growth areas is new plastic for developing economies. And that's why we're seeing huge amounts of investment, hundreds of billions of dollars, in new petrochemicals plants as they try and take advantage of that.

CHANG: Are these same companies that are investing in producing more new plastic, are they also investing in recycling efforts?

BROCK: So these companies absolutely say that they take the waste crisis extremely seriously and that they want to be part of the solution. What our investigation was intended to do was to interrogate that claim. And what we found was the investments they are making in recycling are vague. And those ones that could be calculated are a fraction of the money that they're spending on expanding plastic production. So the situation you have is you're trying to mop up a floor with a hand towel while the bath is overflowing. Then, instead of turning the tap off, you start increasing the water pressure.

CHANG: OK. Well, your investigation also found that the price of new plastic had dropped significantly during this pandemic as a result of these cheaper oil prices. So what does that mean overall for the business of recycling?

BROCK: This has been catastrophic for some smaller recycling firms because COVID has led to a flood of new single-use plastic, but also it's dropped the price of new plastic. So it's very difficult for those companies to compete, and they're already operating on extremely fine margins.

CHANG: I mean, we should remind everyone that recycling was never going to be the solution to all the excess plastic trash produced worldwide. Right?

BROCK: Exactly. And I think what's important for people to understand is that only a fraction of plastic gets recycled. And also, most plastic cannot be recycled. Since 1950, 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste has been produced. Ninety-one percent of that has not been recycled.

CHANG: So can I just ask you then, what do you think is the answer to all of this?

BROCK: So recycling is certainly part of the answer. But a huge amount of investment needs to go into that from governments, from consumer goods companies to the plastic producers themselves. But there's another elephant in the room here, which is we need to stop producing so much single-use plastic. And ultimately, what it comes down to is profit margins versus the good of the planet, the climate and some of the poorest communities in the world.

CHANG: Right. That is reporter Joe Brock from Reuters. Thank you very much for joining us today.

BROCK: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.