The Growing Problem of Disposable Products in Supply Chains

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the high demand for PPE to be produced quickly generated supply and manufacturing disruptions, as well as leaving a potentially dramatic impact on our economy and our environment.

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With the negative effects of plastic clear and the supply chain struggling to cope with the cost and demand of producing them, disposable products such as personal protective equipment (PPE) are a growing concern. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the high demand for PPE to be produced quickly generated supply and manufacturing disruptions, as well as leaving a potentially dramatic impact on our economy and our environment.

Let's take a closer look at the issues surrounding disposable products, and why they continue to be a growing problem.

The impact of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic caused a variety of supply chain issues for a huge range of products, and world trading slowed massively. A combination of lockdown mandates and staff illnesses led to a significant labor shortage and subsequent falls in manufacturing and shipping capacity all over the world. As businesses were forced to adopt new health and safety protocols to minimize the spread of Covid-19, further delays occurred with production of disposable items and, in many instances, this resulted in a rise of the cost of goods.

The pandemic also led to a demand for disposables in a way that has never been seen before. Initially, the massive call for PPE, cleaning equipment and cleaning chemicals saw global manufacturing efforts move to fulfil the demand, which led to shortages of products that were less relevant to dealing with the pandemic. Plus, the demand suddenly fell for many disposable products in food service, hospitality and entertainment, as businesses in these industries were forced to temporarily cease trading.

Whilst the current demand for disposable PPE is not as extreme as it was at the height of the pandemic in 2020, it still remains higher than before the pandemic. This is due to increased awareness of its importance and a desire for preparedness in case of another outbreak. Although the global PPE market size looks set to reach $118.8 billion by 2028, there remains shortages in raw materials as the supply chain continues to respond to the ever-evolving demands for disposable products.

Supply chain recovery faced complications in 2021

As vaccines and social distancing measures helped to control the impact of Covid-19, there was hope that the supply chain could gradually recover in 2021. However, three key events took place that had a major impact on the supply chain.

Firstly, the North American winter storm hit the Gulf coast and caused major disruptions to the petrochemical supply chain. This caused a temporary stop to the production of plastic resins, which are key to the manufacturing of many disposable products. Secondly, the Suez Canal blockage caused a six-day standstill of freight on one of the busiest waterways in the world. Even after the stranded vessel was dislodged, disruption continued to be felt long after, so the impact of this event was enormous.

Finally, the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline caused by computer hacking put a stop to the flow of fuel for six days. Even after operations restarted, it took days until it was fully functional and weeks until the fuel supply chain returned to normal. This had a knock-on effect on manufacturing and shipping throughout North America.

2022 global supply chain issues continue to impact disposables

In 2022, further problems compounded the supply chain situation. The Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out in February and has caused serious problems for the supply chain ever since. Restrictions imposed on Russia have led to fuel supply problems and rising fuel costs throughout Europe. Airfreight has been impacted by Russian airspace restrictions, causing a bottleneck in supply between Asia and Europe. The conflict has also led to congestion issues in Northern European ports, which were already facing problems due to trade complications arising from Brexit.

Meanwhile, rising Covid-19 infections in China led to a series of new lockdowns in the country. A major labor shortage in Shanghai led to a fall in manufacturing and shipping capability. These problems are ongoing in 2023, which means the issues facing disposable products look set to continue.

Trend for eco-friendly disposables leads to further supply chain changes

In addition to the challenges generated by global socio-political events, we're also facing problems generated by new trends in the realm of disposable products. Consumers and businesses alike are becoming more environmentally conscious and taking note of the negative impact of disposable products.

Even when it comes to PPE, there's an acknowledgement that we need to find more sustainable ways to keep people safe than with plastic based disposable products. 14 million pieces of PPE were thrown away by the NHS every day during the height of the pandemic, whilst on a global level, the amount of waste produced by PPE is astronomical.

Demand is increasing for eco-friendly alternatives, such as products that can be safely reused again and again. There's also a growing trend for disposables that are made from more sustainable materials, such as bamboo, palm leaf and paper. Demands for raw materials are consistently evolving and this creates additional supply chain challenges at a time when stability is needed more than ever.

Expect more growing pains for disposable products

With so many challenges facing the global supply chain and continually evolving demands and trends, there looks set to be even more problems surrounding disposable products in 2023 and beyond. We can expect to keep a close eye on global events to stay on top of the issues that we've faced over recent years.