So the Novel Coronavirus pandemic has brought down a rainshower of disease and death on human civilization. Amidst this uncertainty of life and insecurity of the future, the one good thing that we’ve seen is the massive drop in atmospheric pollution levels. However, the pandemic has imposed difficult short-term choices between health and the environment.
The biggest challenge to humankind in this time is to contain the virus which is spreading like anything every day. As per guidelines of controlling the spread of the virus, authorities have emphasized on the widespread use of single-use disposable plastic for packaging, medical uses, etc.
It's clear that we’re headed to some serious impacts of the plastic usage that we're doing right now. But just how much of it do we have to bear with, and why?
WHY SINGLE-USE PLASTIC PACKAGING?
Obviously, due to the fear of virus contamination through reusable products.
The consumption of disposable plastic has risen steeply since the pandemic broke out. Single-use packaging of food, groceries, and medical supplies are the biggest sectors contributing to this.
Several governments across the world have either lifted, suspended, delayed or waived off their bans on the use of disposable plastics to respond to the COVID-9 pandemic.
The Tamil Nadu government in India has suspended the ban on the use of disposable plastic bottles and bags in retail trade. The New York ban that was supposed to go into effect from March 1st, has also been delayed over the coronavirus scenario. The state was forced to postpone the ban until normalcy resumed. The United Kingdom has suspended the plastic bag charge for online deliveries. Scotland too has delayed the introduction of a packing deposit-return scheme.
The Governments that had considered banning the use of virgin plastic to help the world progress towards a more sustainable environment, have now been forced to go against their decisions to meet the immediate crisis.
BUSINESSES HAVE SET AN EXAMPLE IN THIS FRONT
Businesses have taken some rapid steps in controlling the spread of the COVID-19 through human interaction.
The famous coffee chain and fast food resort Starbucks had long stopped from refilling its customers’ reusable cups to prevent the transfer of the virus from one person to another. This preventive measure was implemented in early March before the brand shut down completely owing to the lockdown.
Dunkin Donuts and a Canadian coffee chain Tom Hortons have taken similar steps.
It looks like the present germophobic nation has made us give up on the practice of the 3Rs of plastic usage - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Even until a few weeks ago we were trying our best to avoid using disposable plastic items. Today, we suddenly wake up to a mantra asking us to go for nothing but only single-use plastic if we want to save our lives.
Retail chains and grocery stores that are open to provide the daily essentials have put a total NO-NO on bringing reusable bags from homes. So long, most of these stores had charged their customers for buying plastic/paper bags from their cash-counters. None of those policies are anymore applicable now.
The World Street Journal wrote in its editorial board a few days ago that the state and local officials should discourage shoppers from carrying reusable bags. The reusable bags can be virus-laden and carrying them inside the stores can be dangerous.
“We’ve been in the process of retooling every practice we have since this pandemic began,” People’s Food Co-op CEO Lizzy Haywood said. “One of our practices has been to include full sanitation of every hard surface of our story, every three hours.”
Medical equipment has completely shifted to employing disposable units. Test kits and all other equipment being used to treat COVID-19 patients are highly infectious. Doctors and other medical workers who are bound to handle these items are susceptible to acquiring the germ. Therefore, using single-use disposable materials is the only option left with this sector.
Restaurants have shifted to take-outs and home deliveries. Disposable plastic cutlery and packaging is the current norm as it claims to keep the food safe from the novel coronavirus contaminant. Consumers have become cautious enough to not accept parcels that are without cardboard or plastic packaging.
The scenario is that we are walking in the exact opposite direction from what we had believed in and tried all this time - to refrain from using plastic. The pandemic has challenged our beliefs and our lifestyle-choices in many ways. The line between good & bad and right or wrong has somewhere been blurred. We have to hold our patience until we see further beyond this blanket of COVID-19.
IT’S SHADY! THERE ARE IF’S AND BUT’S.
While single-use plastic has been recommended as the best sanitary option against the Novel Coronavirus, some people have questions upon the credibility of this decision.
While people have started understanding the role that plastic-packaging is playing in the fight against the virus, a study released on March 13th claims that the virus can survive on hard surfaces like plastic, cardboard and stainless steel for as long as 72 hours.
Answering to a debate on the reliability of single-use plastic in the present scenario, the US Plastics Industry Association has written a letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services claiming that "single-use plastic products are the most sanitary choice when it comes to many applications, especially the consumption and transport of food, whether purchased at a restaurant or at a grocery store."
Sian Sutherland, co-founder of international campaign organization 'A Plastic Planet', expressed her concern to FoodNavigator over the reversal on the ban on plastic bag usage and other plastic restrictions. “I don't understand the science of suddenly saying single-use plastic bags are the answer, when it's the cashier that's handing the bags over to you. The overriding message should be to own your own bag, keep it to yourself always, and wash your hands.”, she said.
So here lies the gray part: How is plastic safe for us when the virus can survive on it for 3 days?
The plastic used in the packaging can come to us already contaminated. Hand-to-hand passage of the containers, medical equipment or whatever that is covered with plastic is capable of being exposed to the virus and being home to it for such a long time. How do we ensure that the same virus-contaminated plastic is safe for us?
Many across the globe are of the opinion that washing reusable bags is a good way to stop the virus, just like we're washing our clothes and vegetables for sanitization. Many more are arguing that though the virus can stay on the container’s surface for so long, it is ultimately being disposed of.
Ideally, consumers are to be aware of the risk and are expected to dump the plastic bags into the trash immediately after use. But we are humans, and human error is inevitable. The rate in which the coronavirus is affecting humans, even a second's ignorance can be fatal.
THE RECYCLING SCENARIO
It's obvious that the surge in plastic usage is taking us to a bigger crisis once the pandemic is over. The earth may be floating on virgin plastic.
Plastic is produced from oil. Plummeting oil prices (as a result of the pandemic) will continue to encourage plastic manufacturers to sell more of their products.
On the plastic recycling front, Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of the US-based recycling company TerraCycle said to Wired that “Many recyclers, because of health and safety concerns, are also stopping the service,”.
According to Szaky, recycling businesses were already in crisis in recent years. The Coronavirus pandemic has only fueled the sector into faster deterioration. “Recycling—that's been in sort of a crash—is now getting even worse.”, he stated.
How much of this pandemic-triggered increase in the plastic waste can at all be recycled, is a question that the authorities may somewhat hesitate to answer. Experts mention that the amount of plastic pollution in the world (before the pandemic broke out) was already enough to suffocate us with news of aquatic animals dying from the substance in their guts. Now with the Coronavirus as a catalyst, it's difficult to imagine where we'll stand in the coming days.
Therefore, we are yet to figure out whether the single-use plastic items are a boon or a bane for the earth during the COVID-19 pandemic. In times of such unpredictability in all spheres of life, we must be abreast of the latest updates around the pandemic. What’s more important is that we stay away from fake news and prevent unwanted chaos.
“Fake news is a source of creating mass havoc. Journalists are fighting on the battlefield besides the doctors and medical workers to ensure uninterrupted information dissemination. It's important that we support them by all means and don’t ruin their efforts by entertaining fabricated news.”, said the founder of Indian media house News Sense, Mr. Joydeep Das Gupta.
Truth be told, humans are too dependent on plastic. Be it virgin plastic or recycled plastic, we humans have made them such an important part of our lives that it’s difficult to think of a world without plastic pollution. The best we can do is monitor the quality and quantity of plastic usage.
Authorities concerned with the amplified rate of plastic pollution as a response to the coronavirus crisis have advised consumers to be smart and thoughtful. If washing our hands constantly, maintaining laundry of our clothes and belongings, disinfecting packages before touching them, maintaining the necessary social distance and all the other prescribed precautions can be followed dedicatedly, maybe each of us can contribute in small ways towards controlling the use of disposable plastic items.