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Plastic water and soda bottles fill a container at the St. Joseph Recycling Center, 3405 S. Belt Highway.

A Reuters analysis of pricing data shows that not every business has taken a hit from the coronavirus. Americans facing shutdowns and limited options for outings are willing to pay more for coffee, eggs, sliced ham and a particularly pricey brand of yoga pants called Lululemon.

Another big winner, if you choose to look at it this way, is the plastics industry. The International Solid Waste Association estimates that consumption of single-use plastics has grown 250% to 300% since the pandemic began.

If you’re ordering more food, it’s coming in a plastic container. If you’re avoiding reusable cups for sanitary reasons, you’re back to the dreaded single-use plastic. Personal protection equipment like masks and gowns contain plastic that can’t always be recycled. Hand-sanitizer bottles and COVID testing kits? Plastic, plastic.

Those concerns about an ocean of plastics apparently can wait until after a COVID vaccine is widely available. In California, the governor of the environmentally friendly state even lifted a ban on single-use grocery bags because of concerns about coronavirus transmission.

It seems we’re once again awash in plastic, a sobering thought as the Environmental Protection Agency marks America Recycles Week. Whether this is a temporary blip or a more durable change in consumer sentiment remains to be seen.

America’s recycling industry already faced pricing challenges from China’s decision to no longer accept waste from other countries. Recyclers told Reuters their businesses have shrunk by 20% in Europe, 50% in parts of Asia and as much as 60% for some firms in the United States.

Plastics, meanwhile, are able to ride the wave of an ultra-hygienic society and low prices for petroleum, a key raw ingredient for plastics.

In St. Joseph, interest in recycling ambles along admirably, neither surging to new highs nor fading away. The Recycling Center on the South Belt Highway was closed for a few months in the spring, but the number of vehicles at drop-off remains steady, at 220 to 240 a day, despite the coronavirus disruptions.

City budget documents show that the Recycling Center saw a nearly 10% increase in volume from 2018 to 2019, but recycled materials still account for only 0.0033% of the total tonnage at St. Joseph’s landfill.

This illustrates how St. Joseph has a long way to go before it truly is a recycling town, but this might be due to the broader industry challenges rather than a lack of commitment to sustainability. All in all, maybe we should just be thankful that interest in recycling is able to remain steady and withstand the challenges of the coronavirus.

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