COVID-19 has had a disastrous effect on Fife Council’s drive to reduce single use plastics, with the number of wet wipes purchased in a year rocketing from 526,000 before the pandemic to almost 43 million in the past 12 months.

To tackle the virus more than 2.5 million plastic pinnies and aprons were needed in 2020-21, compared to just 160,000 a year previously, with the local authority forced into measures which have "reversed" a lot of the good work that had gone before.

Pam Ewen, head of planning, stressed: “The drive to reduce is still there. 

“However, the risk to health and safety of our school children and vulnerable adults, as well as supply issues, will not be resolved until Covid is managed down or supply chains and processes adapt to reusable materials. 

“We anticipate that business as usual, and associated reduction of single use plastics, will not return soon and only changes to national Covid guidance will result in further substantive reduction in some areas.”

The council pledged in June 2019 to cut down on single use plastic cutlery, cups and straws from all of their buildings and investigate the use of non-plastic alternatives for other catering items, such as salad boxes.

But while there was initial success, the pandemic has completely changed the picture with a "significant increase" in single use plastics, particularly in relation to catering within schools and care homes, meals on wheels and health and hygiene, increasing by four-fold in some cases.

That included polystyrene and plastic cartons for food in schools, cups, refuse sacks, gloves, wet wipes, aprons, masks, sticky tape and plastic bags.

Ms Ewen said the increase was "disappointing", especially as the council had achieved a 50 per cent reduction in single use plastic food containers and cutlery and a 40 per cent reduction in plastic bags in the first year of the project. 

Technical officer in climate change and zero waste, Ross Spalding, said: "We did see some significant reductions in single use plastics across various different items, particularly bags, cutlery, food containers and overalls, and during phase three, plates, straws and cable ties.

"But there has been a significant impact of Covid-19 during the last 18 months."

He said this was acute in three areas: the need for single use plastics for health and safety reasons to manage the spread of Covid; the impact on the supply chain and ability to purchase alternatives; and the impact on staffing priorities during the early stages of the pandemic.

Almost 1.9 million items of cutlery were purchased compared to just 627,000 the year before, although it was noted that some schools have returned to using metal cutlery while others are using wooden knives, forks and spoons.

Cllr Dave Dempsey said one parent had told him the wooden cutlery used in schools was so poor that it had broken and "pupils were eating with their fingers".

After discovering the wooden cutlery was also single use, Cllr Jonny Tepp said: "It may be single use plastic is the worst of all possible materials but it strikes me that single use anything is probably not very good for the environment.

"It seems odd we're replacing single use plastic cutlery with single use wooden cutlery."

Mr Spalding said: "Single use wood is seen as a better alternative but there is a particular issue with supply right now.

"There isn't enough wood available and that probably feeds into the quality of the materials we're using just now."