Coronavirus: Rural expert warns COVID-19 could be setback to eliminating single-use plastics

There are fears that people will view plastic-packaged foodstuffs as clean and safe.
There are fears that people will view plastic-packaged foodstuffs as clean and safe. Photo credit: Getty

Eric Frykberg for RNZ

The COVID-19 crisis could be a big setback to progress on eliminating plastics, a rural expert has warned.

Ian Proudfoot, global head of agribusiness for KPMG, told a webinar the desire for health and hygiene could easily trump environmental worries about plastics.

His comments follow a steady pushback against plastics overseas and in New Zealand, where it led to a ban on single use plastic bags in many parts of the economy with the aim of reducing pollution and reliance on fossil fuels, which are a raw ingredient for many plastics.

Proudfoot warned however that people could easily come to view plastic-packaged foodstuffs as clean and safe and could start to insist on it, leading to a revival in the use of plastics.

Proudfoot said it happened in East Asian supermarkets even before the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis, and this view could easily spread.

"I do see a potential problem in front of us.... in which the safety element will take priority over the environmental element," he told the webinar.

"What we will see very quickly is the consumer will want [food] that is wrapped."

Proudfoot said the use of biodegradable plastics may offer a solution, and New Zealand could help to manufacture them.

"We produce a lot of trees, we produce wool, we produce fibre products and we produce a whole heap of biomass from the products that we grow, that is at present fundamentally a waste-stream."

Proudfoot said those materials could be used to create biodegradable packaging and help both the environment and the New Zealand economy.