Many of us have been striving for years to be less wasteful, especially when it comes to using single-use plastic. Our efforts have collided head-on with the coronavirus pandemic. The crisis has brought about a resurgence of single-use plastics, and people worried about catching a deadly disease don’t care.
States like California, Hawaii and Massachusetts have enacted bans and taxes on single-use plastic bags over the past decade. But now they are suspending their plastic-reducing efforts due to growing health concerns.
Restaurants, hotels and other food businesses are only offering home delivery or takeaway options. Many won’t allow customers to bring their own containers, defaulting to disposables. Add to this the fact that major grocery chains are not allowing shoppers to bring in reusable cloth bags. And coffee chains won’t allow people to use reusable cups — only serving drinks in disposable single-use cups.
Single-use plastic industry
While the single-use plastic industry touts the benefits of disposable plastics, the eco-friendly alternative of reusable totes, cups and containers is now seen as a disease threat.
A lot of that worry comes from a study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which found that the virus can survive up to three days on some surfaces. Some scientists say those fears are overblown. However, there is no clear proof that single-use bags are a safer option, and at least reusable cloth bags can be washed. In reality, very little is known about whether bags of any type transmit disease, says UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen.
The imperative to prevent the spread of coronavirus means tons of medical waste is being generated. Demand for single-use plastic products and other items such as disposable wipes, cleaning agents, hand sanitizer, disposable gloves and masks is at a record high. They are also being discarded in unprecedented volumes.
Hospitals and aged care facilities are being advised to double-bag clinical waste from COVID-19 patients. While this may be a necessary measure, it adds to the plastic waste problem.
Plastics lobbying groups have long defended their products by noting that plastic has played a revolutionary role in medical care. Single-use surgical gloves, syringes, insulin pens, IV tubes, and catheters, for example, have both reduced the risk of patient infection and helped streamline operations by lifting the burden of sterilization.
While plastic medical equipment may be important, this pandemic is a reminder of how much waste we produce and how we manage or mismanage it.
Where do we go from here?
Reframing plastic as a “protective” health material can divert attention from its dangers to the environment. Reusing goods and packaging as many times as possible, instead of disposing of them and then buying new ones, is one of the greenest practices there is. It prevents energy and resources from being spent on manufacturing and shipping new stuff. It diverts single-use plastic and other waste from landfills and oceans.
When it comes to reusable cups, mugs, and plates, plain old soap and water does the trick. As for secondhand or shared clothing or cloth napkins, people are unlikely to get Covid-19 from fabric because surfaces that absorb are harder to transmit the virus. As a safeguard, washing fabric with detergent and water will destroy the coronavirus.
We can expect the environmental cause will return to the foreground when the COVID-19 crisis has passed. In the meantime,
- reuse what you have and store rather than toss items for donation or recycling;
- talk to takeaway food outlets about options for using your own containers, and refuse disposable cutlery or napkins with deliveries. Brew your own coffee at home rather than buying it in a takeaway cup. And look for grocery suppliers offering more sustainable delivery packaging, such as cardboard boxes or biodegradable bags;
- be vigilant about ways environmental protections such as plastic bag bans might be undermined during the pandemic, and voice your concerns to politicians.
Article gleaned from Grist, Bloomberg Green, National Public Radio, Waste Dive, World Economic Forum, and Forbes. Edited by Jeanette McDermott. The article appeared in the Green Corner of the Province of Mid-North America May-June 2020 newsletter Items of Interest.