Has sustainability been set back permanently?

Medical gloves
The recycling industry has been struggling for years, and the coronavirus crisis has underscored its weaknesses.

Sustainability exists on a spectrum and requires involvement in all parts of the supply chain.

The current crisis has struck waste management. Unlike other sectors of sustainability, including renewable energy, waste management is failing during Covid-19.

However, the pandemic alone is not to blame. The recycling industry has been struggling for years, as collecting and processing waste is expensive.

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The problem has only intensified with the US shipping plastic off to different countries. Current statistics estimate that 91 percent of plastic products are never recycled. During times of crisis, this number is even higher.


Changing consumer habits can only do so much. Campaigns pushing households to recycle more is helpful, but relatively useless if plastic manufacturers do not change their practices.

Buying less plastic can only go so far while incentivizing the manufacturing of more recycled goods makes more of an impact.

Federal tax incentives will be useful, though some states are taking matters into their own hands. Minnesota, for example, offers $400,000 worth of recycling grants to promote their operations. 

The recycling industry was in a season of flux before Covid-19 and needed to find a better solution for waste management. While it may be true that the pandemic has set the industry back permanently, it will not necessarily hinder sustainability.

If anything, it has brought more attention to an already existing problem. Hopefully, the long-term solutions that will arise from the current situation may be more sustainable than traditional methods.


There is a growing concern that the current crisis will boost investment in traditional carbon-intensive industries. However, low-carbon sectors can create more jobs, increase productivity and reinvigorate the economy.

With waste management, this transition is of particular concern. When it comes to plastic waste, most of the refuse produced isn't quality waste, meaning it cannot be easily re-processed into a new product. 

It is also essential to remember that with recycling, the majority of plastic goods will continue to be trash, as you can't reuse them. This gap between the products produced and the ability to re-process them creates an unsustainable system that clogs the recycling process and renders it impractical.

Sustainability exists on a spectrum and requires involvement in all parts of the supply chain.

There is also the human element of recycling, as operations are not entirely autonomous and require the presence of workers to run correctly. With the current situation, companies are making operational changes to protect employees from getting ill. While the amount of waste produced has not slowed down, the ability to collect and distribute it has been deeply affected.

This issue not only affects recycling plants that process waste but also facilities that make recycled products, such as toilet paper. While demand for some sectors is soaring, other recyclables, like scrap metal and aluminum, are struggling. 


Sustainability exists on a spectrum and requires involvement in all parts of the supply chain. For waste management to transition towards a long-term solution, consumers and companies must work together.

Buying more recyclable products is more attainable if more items exist on the market, making it more cost-effective to produce and reuse these goods.

Building more resilient supply chains is a significant part of the solution to the current recycling issue. The pandemic has exposed the weak points of our global linear economy. While efforts may get disrupted in the short term, economists predict that a more sustainable economic system will be necessary going forward.

Transitioning to a circular economy, one that promotes recovering resources rather than disposing of them, might be a game-changer in the face of an economic recession.

Will Covid-19 affect how businesses budget for the following fiscal year? This question is one many companies are pondering. Waste management plans are an integral piece of business and often include a disposal budget, which includes raw materials, effluent waste and energy consumption. With the economy in its current condition, the ability to invest in these practices is questionable.


It's not only businesses that are struggling to find a solution, but the recycling industry itself. Recycling operations must make a profit, meaning the cost to collect and process goods must be less than what they can make on the new product. By transitioning to a more circular economy, businesses may be able to withstand the instability created by the pandemic.

The recycling process doesn't begin when someone throws a product in the bin. It starts when a company constructs the item. Businesses use oil to make plastic. With oil prices being meager, it's cheap and easy to make these goods. More plastic on the market means more products that require recycling, flooding an already overwhelmed industry.

Supply chains will likely be transformed entirely through the current crisis, emerging with new norms and making the old system obsolete. Covid-19 has brought a new awareness to how goods companies produce and distribute goods, making industries more likely to invest in a more affordable solution, one that may be more sustainable.

Plastic waste isn't going away anytime soon. Our society depends on it, and in times of crisis, there are certain plastic goods — like ventilators — that are essential to protecting human health. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed some of the deep fissures in our supply chain, exposing the real issues that fragmented industries like recycling. 

The inefficiency of these waste management systems has existed for years, and a more sustainable solution has been a long time coming. With sustainable development comes the promise of more jobs, more equity, better distribution practices and a more resilient supply chain.

A circular economy would benefit both corporations and consumers, working together to create a more resilient system of processing and collecting products. There may be short-term repercussions for sustainability efforts, but the long-term impact of COVID-19 may move industries in a greener direction.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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