Covid-19 vaccines will need glass vials, but the lockdown is creating a shortage in recycled glass

When the coronavirus began to spread in the U.K., recycling rates started to drop. Some cities suspended curbside recycling; in other areas, the recycling centers that sort through waste had to close because workers couldn’t safely stay 6 feet apart. Some haulers started taking recyclables to landfills.

While most of the changes were temporary, recycling rates may still be lower in the coming months—and that could be a challenge not only for the environment, but for tackling COVID-19. Vaccines are delivered in glass vials, and the pharma industry already faces a looming shortage of the containers; without a steady supply of recycled glass, the glass industry will struggle even more to make enough vials to supply a potential vaccine to 7 billion people. It could also slow down the production of other containers, like glass jars used to package food.

Public health experts have already raised the shortage of vaccine vials as a challenge in the pandemic response. In a whistleblower complaint, Rick Bright, the former head of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, wrote that it could take two years to produce enough vials for U.S. needs. Bill Gates has also highlighted the shortage of vials, which are also still needed for other critical vaccines, including the flu vaccine. Since everyone in the world will need the vaccine, that could mean 7 billion vials, or 14 billion if there are two doses. It’s a massive undertaking that will take time, and it will move more slowly if glass industry supply chains are impacted.

This could be an opportunity to improve recycling rates through better recycling infrastructure, says Burns. “The federal government and even state governments could view our response to the COVID crisis as an opportunity to invest in this vital infrastructure. It’s a source of domestic materials that we can use right here to make products every day . . . supporting infrastructure improvements, as part of whatever stimulus recovery programs we decide to put in place, would be an excellent idea.”

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