Since the COVID-19 pandemic turned life upside down across the globe, devastating economies and bringing health care to its knees, the fear of infection has translated into heightened consumer demand for single-use plastics. Due to the fears caused by the pandemic, even the most sustainability-conscious among us may now find our homes stocked with single-use plastic products which are now central to our new, locked-down, hyper-hygienic way of life.
On top of this, the plastics industry is taking advantage of the uncertainty and fear caused by the pandemic to push for rollbacks or delays of environmental measures meant to reduce plastic pollution. The industry went as far as asking the US Department of Health and Human Services to make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics. They also asked the department to speak out against bans on single-use products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists.
What Are Single-Use Plastics?
Basically, single-use plastics are goods made from fossil fuel-based chemicals (petrochemicals) that are meant to be discarded after one use. Some of the most common single-use plastics are plastic bags, plastic water bottles, plastic utensils, takeout food containers, and straws.
On top of consumer goods, the coronavirus pandemic has also brought a dramatic increase in the use of plastic within the health care industry in the form of masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, protective medical suits, biohazard disposal bags, and test kits. The disposal of all of these items is yet another problem. Environmental groups are warning that all these materials—while potentially life-saving—could overwhelm cities around the globe where recycling and waste collection services have been reduced due to lockdowns.
Why Are Single-Use Plastics Bad?
Our reliance on these goods means we are piling up waste at an alarming rate. Statistics show that we produce 300 million tons of plastic each year worldwide, half of which is from single-use items. That’s almost the weight of the entire human population.
More frequent recycling of more plastic will reduce its footprint. But a staggering 91 percent of all plastic isn’t recycled at all. Unfortunately, the vast majority of plastics end up in landfills or the environment. Single-use plastics, in particular—especially small items like bags, straws, and utensils—are difficult to recycle. More often than not, they fall into the crevices of recycling machinery, so recycling centers usually do not accept them.
What’s worse, plastics don’t break down; they just break apart. Over time, the elements turn plastics into smaller and smaller pieces until they become microplastics. These microscopic fragments end up in the earth’s water, eaten by wildlife, and even inside our bodies. Microplastics are particularly dangerous to wildlife. When eaten, they accumulate inside the animal’s body and cause multiple health issues, such as fatal intestinal blockages and punctured organs.
Marine animals are bearing the burden of this influx of waste into their habitats. Recent studies found plastic inside 90 percent of the seabirds tested and 100 percent of sea turtles. Scientists now estimate there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean (by weight) by 2050. Once again, the majority of this pollution is single-use plastic waste.
So, What Can You Do?
The choices that we make individually have the power to make huge impacts. Make just one simple swap, like purchasing a reusable water bottle, and you can spare the environment hundreds of plastic water bottles every year. Here are some tips to help you say “no” to single-use plastics for good.
- If the stores that you frequent will allow it, bring a reusable bag for shopping.
- Cook at home more often to reduce your use of plastic and styrofoam take-out containers.
- Buy in bulk and avoid individually packaged items, like snack packs.
- Opt for bars of soap instead of plastic bottles of body wash.
- Avoid plastic wrap by storing leftovers in reusable glass containers.
- Try reusable and compostable beeswax wrap as an environmentally-friendly food storage option.
- Buy a bamboo or metal reusable straw.
- Buy reusable utensils made of bamboo, wood, or metal for sustainable eating on-the-go.
- Talk to the owners of the restaurants and bars that you frequent. Ask if they can provide you with non-plastic alternatives for straws, stirrers, take-out containers, or bags.
We can expect that the environmental causes we hold near-and-dear to our hearts will return when the COVID-19 crisis has passed. In the meantime, ditch the single-use plastics, reuse what you have, and recycle anything and everything you possibly can.