Impacts of COVID-19 on single-use plastic in Europe’s environment

Latest News 2021-06-22

The COVID-19 pandemic is a complex, disruptive event with many impacts beyond those related to health and our economies. Handling it is very complex, as the impact of the response to the first wave of COVID-19 on single-use plastic reveals:

  1. More masks, gloves and certain types of packaging made of single-use plastic need to be managed as waste or are being littered and causing addition greenhouse gas and other emissions.
  2. Imports and production of face masks and gloves have increased in the EU.
  3. Production of the EU plastic packaging industry decreased more rapidly during the first months of COVID-19 due to the slowdown in our economies.
  4. The increase in e-commerce during lockdowns is likely to have increased the volume of plastics used in e-commerce packaging in the EU.
  5. Restaurants have shifted to take-away and food deliveries during lockdowns, increasing the use of single-use plastic food containers. At the same time, lockdowns may have reduced overall sales of on-the-go snacks, food and drinks, reducing the need for plastic for that purpose.


Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the use of certain types of single-use plastic packaging in Europe. Although the closure of physical shops and financial uncertainty may have reduced consumption (and associated packaging) overall, a growth in online sales of goods can be observed. This is linked to an increase in the use of plastic and other single-use packaging for e-commerce parcel deliveries. The use of single-use plastic packaging for food has also been affected during lockdown. While many restaurants shifted to take-away services, increasing their use of packaging, reduced commuting, travelling and leisure activities may have reduced the demand for on-the-go food and drinks.


Production and impacts

The production of the EU plastic packaging industry has been gradually decreasing since 2017. During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, production decreased more rapidly than in previous months (see Figure 3). This reduction amounted to approximately 227 000 tonnes of plastic packaging from April to October 2020 (i.e. the shaded area in Figure 3 representing plastic packaging production in EU-27 beyond business-as-usual levels). By October 2020, production had returned to business-as-usual levels.


Source: European Environment Agency