The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have shifted the focus of legislators away from previous efforts to advance extended producer responsibility (EPR) requirements, and it has increased the demand for single-use packaging products. In an article published on April 24, 2020, Waste Dive reported on the now-expected delays in advancing EPR legislation in multiple US states including Maine, Massachusetts, and California. Maine’s pending bill LD 2014 aimed to introduce a product stewardship arrangement in 2021 for packaging that would require producers to contribute to a managed fund to reimburse municipalities for recycling and disposal costs. However, with the legislature currently adjourned due to the pandemic, it may miss a deadline to be passed and would then have to wait until 2021 to be re-introduced. “Even if the legislature meets for a special session, they may not take everything back up that was left undone. They may choose to only work on bills that are not controversial or are directly related to the pandemic,” said Sarah Nichols from the National Resources Council of Maine (NRCM).

Citing COVID-19, the governor of the US state of Washington recently vetoed a bill that would have established minimum recycled content requirements for some plastic beverage containers. On April 22, 2020, the governor of California temporarily suspended the state’s ban on plastic bags, and the city of San Francisco has even placed a temporary ban on reusable shopping bags. At the end of March 2020, Waste Dive also reported that multiple states have paused their container deposit programs. In the midst of these delays, an alliance of plastic manufactures has asked the US Congress for $1 billion in funding to support recycling infrastructure in the country.

Similar effects are being seen in other regions as well. An article in the Bangkok Post published on April 21, 2020, discussed the impact the pandemic has had on the momentum to phase-out plastic bags and on the demand for single-use packaging in Thailand. At the beginning of 2020, major retailers in the country had agreed to stop offering single-use plastic bags, and the movement was expected to soon be extended to also include small and medium-sized businesses. However, panic shopping and a significant increase in takeaway restaurant orders have seen the demand for single-use plastic bags and e-commerce packaging grow between 40 and 50% since March, with plastic food packaging sales increasing by 10%. One biodegradable food packaging manufacture reported a 30% increase in their sales. Overall, the pandemic has led to a shortage of food packaging in the country that is now affecting small street food vendors.

Even with all the current delays, the Waste Dive article explained that supporters of EPR legislation still see the positive effect the pandemic could have by raising public awareness for the importance of waste and recycling management. Recent discussions by civil society stakeholders see the pandemic as an opportunity to promote resilience within communities and to shift food packaging supply chains towards systematic reuse and onto a more local level (FPF reported). On April 24, 2020, civil society organization members of the #Break Free From Plastic movement sent a letter to multiple European government officials calling for them to resist a shift back towards single-use plastics during the pandemic. A recent statement from the European Commission, however, showed that there are currently no plans for the EU to delay the implementation of the upcoming single-use plastic legislation (FPF reported). Nonetheless, the Waste Dive article suggested that financial impacts caused by the pandemic may end up playing a decisive role in how things move forward. “The challenge will be whether the political will that has been building continues to build,” explained Scott Cassel from the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), “or whether it will be diverted because of the financial issues created by the virus.”

More information related to the COVID-19 pandemic and packaging is available on the Food Packaging Forum’s resources page.

Read more

E.A. Crunden (April 24, 2020). “With EPR bills frozen due to coronavirus in many states, proponents still see path forward.” Waste Dive

Keller and Heckman LLP (April 22, 2020). “WA Governor Vetoes Plastic Beverage Container Recycling Bill due to COVID-19 Costs.”

Keller and Heckman LLP (April 27, 2020). “San Francisco Bay Area Counties Ban Reusable Bags Due to COVID-19; California Suspends Plastic Bag Ban.”

Steve Toloken (April 27, 2020). “California suspends plastic bag ban.” Plastics News

Sharon Lerner (April 27, 2020). “Big Plastic Asks for $1 Billion Coronavirus Bailout.” The Intercept

Break Free From Plastic (April 24, 2020). “Subject: A post COVID-19 world – Enabling lasting solutions to the plastic pollution crisis for a more resilient economy.” (pdf)

Bangkok Post (April 21, 2020). “Plastic plans fail as pandemic deliveries prevail.”

Katie Pyzyk (March 24, 2020). “At least 8 states suspend bottle bill requirements during coronavirus pandemic.” Waste Dive

Jessi Devenyns (April 24, 2020). “Consumers still care about sustainability amid pandemic, report finds.” Food Dive

Daiane Scaraboto, Alison M Joubert, and Claudia Gonzalez-Arcos (April 30, 2020). “Using Lots of Plastic Packaging During the Coronavirus Crisis? You’re Not Alone.” The Conversation

Tanika Godbole (May 27, 2020). “Coronavirus aggravates Thailand’s plastic waste crisis.” DW

Keller and Heckman LLP (June 29, 2020). “Vermont’s Plastic Bag Ban Takes Effect July 1; Other States Push Back on Bans.”