Why are we discussing this now?
Did you know that many countries have extended, or temporarily stopped, their goals to end single-use plastic waste to help aid COVID-19 measures (specifically in regards to cross-contamination)? On top of that, many global companies, including Starbucks, have completely disbanded some of their sustainable efforts, in order to ensure that their staff have a safe and healthy work environment.
OK - So what?
The question becomes: should we really postpone environmental concerns while attempting to control the pandemic, or, should we continue to attempt reducing plastic waste alongside our efforts to curb COVID?
In 2017 Johns Hopkins University and Swiss Re published in a report on pandemics in a changing climate that a “report published by the World Economic Forum identifies the link between climate change and the spreading of infectious diseases…”
If we begin to think of climate change and societal health as an interconnected circle then how certain scenarios, such as pandemics, are handled also play an important part in environmental and societal health. So far, society’s handling of COVID has not had this circular relationship in mind.
So is it hopeless?
Not really. It is possible to fight the COVID-induced rise of single-use plastic waste while navigating environmental and public health concerns simultaneously. There are multiple ways to do this, but let us consider two main schools of thought.
The first is to give more money to recycling plants/initiatives. Financially aiding these endeavours would allow owners to combat the plastic created by COVID head-on, including hiring back employees and maintaining cost of running a recycling plant during the current rise in demand.
The second is by encouraging more initiatives like a circular economy, where the goal is to re-define processes, eliminate unnecessary waste and regenerate natural systems. By performing these three actions, how countries have handled COVID can be analyzed to see where manpower and resources are being unnecessarily used, and can then be slowly shifted into processes that are able to fit the end goal of a healthy environment and community.
Another way society can fight the rise of single-use plastic waste from COVID is by re-evaluating how we view the term “single-use”. Normally, “single-use” is associated with something that is immediately thrown away, and is therefore often perceived in a negative light. Usually, when attempting to change this process, initiatives replace plastic items with reusable, long-lasting versions.
However, using these items has become a complex reasoning cycle where individuals now have to navigate recent COVID research, local regulations, and national guidelines; which becomes a more in-depth analysis than many are willing to make. So what if we instead found a way to re-invent the term “single-use”?
Instead of making “single-use” a signifier for an object that is thrown out immediately after it has been used, what if we made these items with an additional purpose in mind? For instance, edible straws provide both solutions: it is a single-use item, so worrying about COVID by-laws and health concerns are not necessary, but it also does not create waste once its original intent, like helping you consume your iced coffee, has been completed.
It may be all well and good to insist that stopping the production of single-use plastic will aid the environment, but there is also no denying the large hit COVID has implemented on the global economy. Even for billion dollar conglomerates the multiple lock-downs, safety measures, extra staff, and personal protection equipment has resulted in huge financial losses that were obviously not expected this year.
Is COVID-19 that expensive?
In all honesty, yes, it is. Businesses from large conglomerates to local shops are bleeding cash (obviously there are some exceptions), but let us consider one major industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurants in the US have lost roughly $120 billion so far, with an expected loss of $240 billion by the end of the year. Smaller and local businesses are struggling to meet the expenses needed to maintain COVID health regulations as well as local by-laws, and asking owners to implement more sustainable solutions - which tend to be expensive - might be too much.
Additionally, while plastics are environmentally harmful, there is no denying that it is a cost-effective solution that is versatile enough to weather the ever-changing needs COVID has been creating. Regardless as to whether a restaurant can have dine-in or take-out only options, the plastic and styrofoam containers that are industry standard, will never go bad and can be used in years to come.
Continuing on the logic of not-reinstating environmental initiatives during COVID is the relatively recent hope of the soon-coming (hopefully) vaccine. The presence of a vaccine, along with the promising test results, gives credence to the logic that it makes no sense to reinstate these environmental initiatives when they can easily be restarted once public health is no longer under a mass threat from COVID.
You hit me out of left field there…
This train of thought might seem abrupt considering the previous segment, however let’s consider the overarching argument: many of the single-use plastic waste initiatives were stopped because of health concerns, specifically the transferral of the virus via objects.
Therefore since test results on the various vaccines show promising statistics in lowering COVID symptoms at high rates, the fear of transferring the virus through objects will soon no longer be a mass concern. If that particular fear is no longer valid, it stands to reason that single-use plastic initiatives that were put on hold, can be reinstated.
Even before COVID-19, balancing the environment with our own lives and needs was a task that was just being considered on a daily basis. Now adding in additional COVID concerns has made continuing a sustainable mindset more difficult, and often unattainable for the immediate future.
So then, really, the question becomes: is it possible to re-introduce ways to avoid single-use plastic in the face of COVID-19?