The clear plastic barriers installed at checkout counters, offices and restaurants, as one of the lines of defense to stop the spread of COVID-19, are coming down at many businesses and schools.
The Publix grocery chain removed the clear acrylic partitions installed two years ago at its 1,300 stores. The locations are mainly in Florida, Georgia and Alabama and other Southern states.
"As a result of the decrease in COVID-19 cases and wide availability of vaccines, Publix is removing the clear plastic shields from registers, customer service desks and pharmacies," spokeswoman Maria Brous said in an email. "We have stored the shields upon their removal."
Other businesses plan to permanently take down the barriers, which are predominantly made of acrylic, polycarbonate and thin-gauge glycol-modified PET — all recyclable materials but not widely accepted at places where the public recycles.
This should be a learning moment for the industry and public, according to Joey McCabe, vice president of Faulkner Plastics Inc. in Hialeah, Fla., and a member of the Overland Park, Kan.-based International Association of Plastics Distribution trade group.
IAPD formed in 1956 to bring together distributors, fabricators, manufacturers and recyclers of performance plastics.
"We need to let people know these barriers are indeed recyclable, just not through the traditional route," McCabe said in a phone interview. "The recycling infrastructure isn't there for the general public, but there are facilities like mine across the country to properly dispose of it."
Founded by his father, Joe McCabe Sr., in 1966, Faulkner Plastics is a distributor and fabricator of sheet, film, rods and tubes. The business also takes back products made of those plastic components and grinds them into chip-size pieces for recycling into sheet again by another company in its supply chain.
"Right now they pick up a couple tons every couple weeks," McCabe said. "Obviously the volume could increase tremendously if people start bringing plastic barriers to us en masse."
McCabe was pleased when desk barriers from a Florida law firm were dropped off last year after he promoted a recycling drive for the products, which were scarce on a global basis not too long ago.
Sales of clear sheet tripled to roughly $750 million in the U.S. after the pandemic hit in March 2020, according to Bloomberg. Businesses and schools scrambled for protection from the respiratory droplets that health authorities suspected were spreading the coronavirus.
Three years' worth of acrylic was produced in the span of three months, mostly for personal protective equipment, McCabe said. He has been concerned all along that once people feel more comfortable, the barriers may start showing up in landfills.
To begin promoting the recyclability of these products, McCabe organized a barrier drive last summer. At a city council meeting and on Facebook, McCabe told elected officials and the community not to throw barriers away but get them to his business or one like it. However, soon after Faulkner Plastics kicked off its barrier recycling program, COVID variants gave businesses pause about removing them for good, McCabe said.
"Recycling barriers has been a slow roll. It hasn't caught fire yet so we're in a position to push the educational angle," McCabe said. "I think the plastics industry as a whole needs to raise awareness that these products don't belong in a dumpster. They are indeed recyclable if they reach the correct point of the supply chain."
Stewart Levy, president of TKO Polymers Inc. in Atlanta, agreed. He said he is fielding questions from businesses looking to go barrier-free.
Levy sees "limited amounts" of barriers coming down where he lives and works, he said in an emailed response to a Plastics News survey. But no one has turned to his business yet with used sheet for recycling.
"We have had only inquiries at this point," Levy said.