The last couple of months have been drenched in confusion and uncertainty, pushing virtually each one of us to quickly adapt to sudden changes in both our public and private lives. Seeking to protect our loved ones and the community at large, we have made huge shifts in our way of life, from sheltering in our homes and embedding physical distancing in our behaviours to changing the way we consume and interact in society.
Unfortunately, despite most of us having changed our habits amid the crisis, the plastic industry has not, continuing to pursue its same old “business as usual” agenda. In fact, particularly in the US and Europe, it has been actively seeking to capitalize on the coronavirus crisis by interfering with environment-conscious policies that aim to slash single-use plastics.
The hunt for the plastic bag ban
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, public concern around plastic pollution on the environment was rising at a steady pace. And as awareness around the issue was growing, in an effort to protect the environment and reduce marine litter, government officials started to push for progressive policies against unnecessary plastic waste. In the US, such policies have mainly taken the form of laws that ban single-use plastics, such as disposable plastic bags in retail shops.
As The New York Times reports, these bans on disposables have become a growing threat to the plastic industry, since single-use packaging represents a considerable chunk of end-use demand for plastic resins. That being the case, the industry has quickly moved to try and block laws prohibiting single-use plastics even before the coronavirus outbreak, with the help of plastic lobby groups and media outlets with industry ties.
But when the COVID-19 crisis started it also brought with it heightened concerns of hygiene and sanitation, which the plastic industry has quickly attempted to turn to its advantage.
About a month ago, in an effort to denigrate reusables, the Plastic Industry Association has brazenly requested the US Department of Health to publicly declare that reusables are a threat to people’s health amid the pandemic and that single-use plastics are actually “the most sanitary choice” for consumers’ health — claims backed by misinterpreted research findings of previous studies.
In a recent research brief, Greenpeace US reports that a number of media outlets with ties to the plastic industry have also been attempting to make a case against reusables: “Several articles reference older studies that demonstrated the transmission of certain bacteria via reusable bags, without mentioning that those studies were funded by the plastics industry, nor the finding that bags could be disinfected with washing”. So far, anti-plastic measures have been relaxed in a number of states, including Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
The European Union receives a similar letter
In a similar manner, the plastic industry in Europe hasn’t been wasting any time in portraying single-use plastic as the good guy. In a recent letter directed at EU commissioners, plastic industry lobbyists shamelessly attempted to postpone and weaken the implementation of 2019 EU legislation, intended to reduce plastic pollution. The poor arguments compiled in the letter, however, failed to impress the Commission and the request was dismissed.
These profit-driven efforts to push for plastic disposables tend to draw away from recent research findings that have indicated that the virus can persist up to three days on plastic surfaces — the longest when compared to other materials examined.
Additionally, there is currently no compelling evidence suggesting single-use containers are safer than reusable ones. In fact, plastic represents a public health threat both on its own and in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. Most plastic is made of chemicals derived from fossil fuels, the extraction and distillation of which emits harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, posing a threat to both public health and the environment.
What’s more, if they don’t end up in landfills or polluting the oceans after they’re discarded, most single-use plastic bags go to incineration facilities, where they release toxic gases polluting fence-line communities and putting people’s health at risk, making them more vulnerable to such pathogens like the coronavirus.
The reuse journey goes on
By seeking to create misleading narratives around reusables, the plastic industry acknowledges the strong potential of these sustainable alternatives to kick disposable plastic out of the picture. For that reason, we must stand up to the industry’s shameless actions and remain determined in our efforts to overhaul current systemic inefficiencies that harm both the environment and communities around the world.
It is important that the innovator and NGO community will continue to advance environment-conscious policies like banning disposables and ensure that enough funding and investments are directed towards solutions targeting the plastic menace. Among such solutions are the ventures we are building at the Zero Waste Living Lab, including Kecipir – our farm-to-fork initiative in Indonesia that significantly minimizes the environmental footprint of current supply-chains, as well some of our reuse and reduce ventures that allow consumers to lead a zero-waste lifestyle.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the surface a great number of gaps within our current structures, but it has also given us time to stop for a minute and reflect upon these issues. We must take this opportunity and make the best of it, to bring meaningful change to the current system in ways that would do justice to both people and the planet. The Zero Waste Living Lab, for one, is determined to continue its efforts of making reuse the new normal and pave the way for a cleaner, more circular economy.