Pandemic protections, plastics reverse reusable revolution

Sophia Stern, Business Manager

Initially, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to have a positive effect on the environment: carbon emissions decreased with fewer cars on the road, and wildlife thrived in the absence of harmful human activity. Before the wildfires, it was even possible to see clearly across the bay. However, as businesses have pivoted to the use of single-use plastics for sanitary purposes, there has been an increase in take-out boxes, plastic utensils and disposable masks. The influx of single-use plastics during the ongoing pandemic has negatively affected the environment and has led to reversals of previous strides toward a more sustainable planet.

To be clear, taking precautions through single-use plastics is important for safety: items such as reusable bags could potentially spread the novel coronavirus. When the pandemic began, the Plastics Industry Association sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services asking the agency to publicly endorse single-use plastics as a safer option for preventing viral transmission than reusable materials. This claim stemmed from older studies, including one from the Oregon Health and Science University, which found that bacteria accumulates on unwashed reusable bags. However, the same study also found that washing the bags would kill the bacteria.

Thus, reusable bags, when used correctly, are no worse than plastic bags. After all, if one were to use the same plastic bag twice, they would encounter the same risk of transmission that they would with unwashed reusable bags. While using and discarding plastic bags is more convenient than repeatedly washing reusable bags, the plastic waste produced would be costly to our atmosphere and wildlife.

Reversal of plastic bag bans could wreak havoc on ocean habitats, causing immensely harmful pollution for aquatic wildlife.”

Despite this, companies such as Ineos Styrolution Group GmbH and Trinseo SA, which supply single-use plastic products, have reported sales doubling. Waste collection agencies report that areas within the United States have increased residential waste by 35%, and some have predicted that a year’s worth of plastic has been generated in only a few months due to the pandemic.

Fueling this recent success of the plastic industry are the same health concerns regarding the potentially unsanitary nature of reusable bags. Taking advantage of this unfavorable view toward their eco-friendly competition, some companies have lobbied to loosen plastic bag restrictions. Reversal of plastic bag bans could wreak havoc on ocean habitats, causing immensely harmful pollution for aquatic wildlife.

Additionally, personal protective equipment (PPE) has been essential for health workers during the pandemic. PPE is mostly composed of synthetic materials, and this equipment has been found carelessly discarded in gutters and washed up on beaches. As masks have become a requirement in most states, they’ve posed a greater threat to our environment as litter, sometimes even strangling aquatic animals.

Despite safety concerns, there are still ways to be environmentally friendly during COVID-19, including using reusable masks, purchasing durable water bottles, and carrying groceries out to put in reusable bags.

The pandemic won’t last forever, but the consequences of plastic use will linger long after COVID-19.”

Efforts to save our environment and reduce waste seem to be moving backwards now, as companies use fear of virus transmission to encourage the use of plastic materials. The pandemic currently shows no signs of slowing down, and PPE is necessary for the safety of all. However, the effects of plastic materials on the environment need to be addressed, and waste should be minimized or responsibly disposed of. The pandemic won’t last forever, but the consequences of plastic use will linger long after COVID-19. It’s important to take care of our planet because once the damage is done, it can’t be reversed, and future generations depend on the actions we take now.