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Global drive to reduce use of plastics hits COVID-19 roadblock

Low cost and hygiene breathe new life into once-reviled industry

Higher demand for take-out and home delivery meals driven by the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing up consumption of plastic packaging. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BANGKOK -- For the moment COVID-19 appears to have slowed efforts to make the world less plastic.

Plastics manufacturers in Thailand and elsewhere are unexpected beneficiaries of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Higher demand for plastic containers and bags for food deliveries to stay-at-home customers has helped Siam Cement, a leading Thai petrochemical producer, post a 33% year-on-year rise in sales of packaging materials and containers in the first quarter the year, to give just one example.

The global trend toward less use of plastics may lose momentum, at least until the novel coronavirus outbreak subsides. Many manufacturers are raising production in response to growing demand.

Use of disposable plastics in Thailand, which had been falling, is rising again as COVID-19 has spread. The amount of plastic waste in Bangkok jumped 62% in April from a year earlier to 3,440 tons per day, according to the Thailand Environment Institute.

Sales of plastic food containers rose sharply in Thailand in the January to March quarter, possibly because the closure of restaurants kept customers at home, said Roongrote Rangsiyopash, the group's president and CEO. Siam Cement will meet this rapidly increasing demand, he said.

Leading Thai plastic bag maker TPBI saw sales climb 11% in the disposable plastics segment in January to March. That segment includes grocery and garbage bags. Although major retailers in Thailand stopped offering free plastic shopping bags to customers in January, demand has risen sharply as shops and restaurants closed in March and voluntary quarantines caught on, a TPBI official said.

Deplasticization moves, such as discontinuing the offer of plastic shopping bags to shoppers at retailors, were advancing in Thailand before the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Yohei Muramatsu)

The use of plastics is rising again in the wake of the pandemic. Supermarkets in Bangkok began individually wrapping bread and prepared food items starting around April, ending the practice of allowing shoppers to put as much as they wanted of an item into bags or containers, to slow the spread of infection.

Eka Global, a Thai manufacturer of plastic food packaging and containers, increased its production capacity in April to 20 million units per month from 8 million to meet rising demand, the English-language daily Bangkok Post reported.

Asia is an important market for manufacturers. According to QUICK FactSet, 148 big packaging companies worldwide, including WestRock of the U.S. and FP of Japan, made 34% of their combined sales in the Asia-Pacific region last year. The the biggest market, accounting for 31.7% global demand, followed by China at 20.1% and Japan at 5.1%. Thailand, which accounts for 2.5% of worldwide demand, was among the world's 10 largest consumers.

As Thailand has many street food vendors, takeout demand pushed up sales of polystyrene foam containers and plastic bags With marine pollution caused by plastic waste becoming a global problem, the Thai government has been pushing industry to use fewer plastics. It hopes to end the use of major single-use plastic products by 2022.

A number of big convenience and supermarket chains in Thailand stopped offering plastic bags to shoppers this year. That created headwinds for packaging companies, but the trend may be reversing.

Moves to reduce the use of plastics had been gathering steam internationally before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. The European Council adopted a law in May 2019 banning single-use plastic straws, forks, spoons and other items by 2021. Similar steps aimed at curbing maritime pollution from plastic waste were taken by leaders of the Group of 20 major economies and by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at its meeting in June last year.

But the pandemic has highlighted the benefits of single-use plastics. Strong, durable plastic bags are useful for food delivery services and plastic containers have advantages from the standpoint of hygiene.

In China, production of plastic products rose 6% in March from a year earlier. Kingfa, a Chinese manufacturer of plastic materials for use by home appliance and automobile manufacturers, announced on May 6 that it will expand into production of plastic packaging and containers.

There are moves to ease or reverse earlier bands on the use of plastic shopping bags in various places. New York State has repeatedly postponed a ban originally due to take effect on March 1, due to concerns that reusable bags are unsanitary unless they are washed and contribute to the spread of disease.

Britain has temporarily stopped charging 5 pence (6 cents) for plastic shopping bags at supermarkets to speed home deliveries and protect drivers against possible infection.

"Post-COVID communication will be essential to reeducate consumers about the safety of reusable options," said Maria Coronado Robles, a senior consultant at Euromonitor International.

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