Single-Use Plastic vs. The Pandemic

By Claire Leonard, Tackling Plastics Communications Officer

In times of doubt, it’s natural to seek information from authority figures. During this unprecedented time of COVID-19, we are collectively apprehensive. We ask questions, often frantically seeking answers that will provide reassurance or comfort. The questions at the forefront of our minds surround the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones. How do we keep ourselves ‘safe’? Are we doing everything we can to protect ourselves and our families? Often, there are no clear answers.

It’s in this space of fear where doubt may creep in, guided by misinformation or conflicting news stories. US think tanks have recently been accused of sharing misleading articles that could suggest reusable options are unsafe to use during this pandemic. This comes at a time that many US states have already decided to roll back their respective plastic-bag ban, citing coronavirus considerations. In the UK, recycle schemes were postponed as a result of COVID-19, and refill model businesses were mandated to pause these services in the wake of new health and safety procedures. By following these news stories with no counter argument, we could be susceptible to fearmongering. We may feel that we have no choice but to abandon our sustainability efforts – using reusable containers for food, drinks and groceries –  in order to stay safe and reduce virus transmission.

A recent Guardian article  highlighted this challenge; environmental campaigners fearing that the battle to reduce single-use plastic waste was losing ground. Examples included some cafes refusing eco-cups (understandable, when there was little clear information available on safety of use) and, more disturbingly, the plastic industry exploiting the current crisis to lobby against bans on single-use plastic. However, the recent release of a signed statement from 119 scientists from 18 countries puts speculation to rest; reusable plastic can be used safely by employing basic hygiene.

“The COVID-19 global pandemic has triggered a discussion of how to ensure the safety of reusable systems in a public health crisis. Based on the best available science and guidance from public health professionals, it is clear that reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene”.

This is a challenge we face as individuals on a daily basis during this time of COVID-19, balancing our desire to lead sustainable lives whilst also leading ‘safe’ lives. It’s in this place of uncertainty that misinformation might present itself as factual. As always, conducting you own research and consulting a variety of sources is recommended.

We are, understandably, prioritising health and safety at this time. However, we also now know that ‘sustainability’ and ‘safety’ during these unprecedented times are not mutually exclusive. Take comfort in the scientific evidence above. We know that the use of reusable containers, if properly washed, will not increase the risk of virus transmission. Resist the temptation to slip into unnecessary habits by relying on single-use plastic options. We’ve all seen the devastation that pointless plastic does to our environment so please continue to fight against this.

COVID-19 has taught us that we’re capable of making significant behavioural changes extremely quickly. We have the scientific backing now to keep up this momentum, ensuring the safety of the planet as well as ourselves. This month is Plastic Free July, so what better time to consider making a commitment now to reduce your use of pointless plastic?

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