The COVID-19 response has brought an avalanche of plastic into our lives; but you can live plastic free and still be safe
As 2019 gave way to 2020, it felt like we were finally gaining ground in the effort to reduce our dependence on plastic. Microbeads in cosmetics and personal care brands had been eliminated. Plastic bags at the grocery store were banned or taxed and widespread use had declined around the world. Coffee shops and cafes were offering a discount for customers bringing in their reusable mugs. And big-name music festivals were phasing out single-use plastic.
And we were set to see even more bans rolling out in 2020 – on straws, coffee stirrers, cotton earbuds and takeaway containers.
In one of my favourite articles on the subject – ‘Planet Plastic’ in Rolling Stone – Tim Dickinson references a conversation he had with an industry expert that sums up the fear that these changes were having on the ‘powers that be’:
‘..the industry is quietly agonising over backlash from the metal-straw and Hydroflask-toting members of Generation Z. “The [plastic] water bottle has, in some way, become the mink coat or the pack of cigarettes,” a senior sustainability manager for Nestlé Waters confessed at a conference last year. “It’s socially not very acceptable to the young folks, and that scares me.”‘
But…then COVID-19 hit and plastic came back with a vengeance.
First, the coffee shops banned reusable cups. Then reusable grocery bags became the enemy. The only way to get food you didn’t cook at home was by takeaway – with all its attendant packaging. And PPE used by the general public ended up on our streets, parks, waterways and beaches.
Fear of the unknown is only natural, and in the early days of the pandemic we didn’t yet understand how and where the virus could live and be transmitted. But what’s come to light is that a lot of this fear – especially around the use of reusable items – was unfounded. And the groups stoking the fear did not have pure intentions. In fact, they have a history of denying that climate change is real and they have ties to Big Oil.
At the end of March, Greenpeace USA was calling out conservative think tanks and rightwing nonprofits for publishing misinformation ‘aimed at defeating or repealing plastic bag bans’. The groups – specifically the Manhattan Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute which was ‘instrumental in persuading the Trump administration to abandon the Paris climate agreement’ – cited studies ‘suggesting that reusable bags are a higher risk for transmitting coronavirus than plastic bags, misrepresenting recent research that shows the virus survives at least as long on plastic’.
The Manhattan Institute has received over $3 million from Koch Industries, a petrochemical company, and has a history of hosting climate change deniers at their events. And the New York Times reported that the Charles Koch Institute and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers sponsored the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s 2019 gala. The organisation is ‘best known for its work disputing the science of climate change’.
The reason this is relevant is that oil and plastics are inextricably linked.
‘At its root,’ Tim Dickinson writes in Rolling Stone, ‘the global plastics crisis is a product of our addiction to fossil fuels. The private profit and public harm of the oil industry is well understood: Oil is refined and distributed to consumers, who benefit from gasoline’s short, useful lifespan in a combustion engine, leaving behind atmospheric pollution for generations. But this same pattern — and this same tragedy of the commons — is playing out with another gift of the oil-and-gas giants, whose drilling draws up the petroleum precursors for plastics.
‘These are refined in industrial complexes and manufactured into bottles, bags, containers, textiles, and toys for consumers who benefit from their transient use — before throwing them away.
“Plastics are just a way of making things out of fossil fuels,” says Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network.’
Now more than 100 scientists have signed a statement that says ‘reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene’. As in, wash your hands regularly. Wipe down surfaces regularly. Wash your reusables regularly.
Soap and hot water are what’s needed – not more plastic.
‘I hope we can come out of the COVID-19 crisis more determined than ever to solve the pernicious problems associated with plastics in the environment,’ said Charlotte K Williams, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University.
‘In terms of the general public’s response to the COVID crisis, we should make every attempt to avoid over-consumption of single-use plastics, particularly in applications like packaging.’
There will be occasions when single-use plastic makes sense, but we shouldn’t reach for it first assuming that it’s more hygienic or that it will keep us healthier.
We can still live a plastic-free lifestyle in the age of COVID. Here’s how:
Unless you’re a key worker with specific guidelines, wear a reusable mask and wash it regularly
Wash your hands regularly and use bars of soap rather than the soap that comes in plastic bottles
Shop local at zero waste shops, farm shops or local markets to cut down on plastic packaging – and wash your reusable shopping bags regularly
Buy fresh, loose ingredients to cook your meal from scratch; avoid takeaways and ready meals
Fill up your reusable bottle of water before you leave the house, and make sure you wash it daily
Same with your coffee on-the-go – make it before you leave the house or the office. But if you do find yourself needed a refill, City to Sea have nailed it with their incredibly simple and common-sense approach to #contactlesscoffee
So while it would be easy to react to the current crisis by reaching for plastic, we need to remember that the long-term consequences to the planet are significant. We can still take individual actions to reduce the single-use plastic in our lives.
Sign up for Plastic Free July and choose one item you can swap today.