In the midst of quarantine and loads of safety regulations being thrown at us, something that we’ve worked to dismiss for years has made a comeback overnight. What is this sly substance you might ask? Well, it’s plastic.
by Sindu Vipparthy
As all of humankind is stuck in quarantine, their shopping habits have been altered drastically. From wearing masks—maybe even gloves—to carrying a Lysol disinfectant spray around, it’s obvious that none of this would have happened if the world wasn’t experiencing a pandemic. However, there is one issue in particular that needs to be addressed. One issue that has been addressed before, but has now made a comeback: plastic.
When an individual visits any kind of store, it is almost certain that they will need a bag to carry all their purchases in. Over the past few years, stores of all kinds—from clothing stores to grocery stores—have encouraged their customers to bring their own reusable bags to prevent plastic waste by replacing plastic bags with paper ones and charging an extra 10 cent fee for them. However, with this overhead of a pandemic, these stores have decided to revert to giving out free plastic bags in order to minimize the spread of the virus. We could undo years of progress to save millions of people. Was this a step forward or a step backward?
Well, that’s where the trilemma is presented: should stores continue to give out free plastic bags to minimize Coronavirus cases, or should they discontinue them for the sake of our environment? Or, is there a neutral perspective? Let’s find out.
Safety Over Plastic Bags:
First of all, one of the main ways coronavirus spreads is through contact: the CDC states that an individual is likely to retain the virus “by touching a surface or object that has the virus and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes”. Therefore, a reusable shopping bag—, being something of frequent use—, is a convenient way for the virus to spread.
Plastic bags, on the other hand, seem like a reasonably safe way to hinder the spread of the virus. Since most stores are prohibiting customers from bringing their own bags and handing out single-use plastic bags that should be disposed of right away, the chances of touching an infected surface are lowered.
To clear it up a bit, let's conjure up two hypothetic, but realistic, scenarios:
Let’s say that Cindy, an individual who has been infected, goes to Target to purchase a few essentials. Well, knowing Cindy, she buys a lot of essentials and now needs a way to carry them back to her car and all the way home. Now, this is important: if Cindy brought her own reusable bag and had given it to Bryan, the cashier, she would have infected Bryan and he wouldn’t even know it. Additionally, since he’s a cashier, he would have been able to infect hundreds of customers that come to the store every day.
Now, here’s the other side of the scenario. If Bryan had bagged all of Cindy’s purchases in a plastic bag and given it to her, there’s a smaller chance of Bryan catching the virus and infecting other customers. Therefore, Bryan using a plastic bag would help hinder the spread of the virus.
Reversion to Plastic Bags causes Environmental Damage:
Plastic pollution is an issue our world has worked hard to forgo, with consumers becoming mindful of their contributions to plastic pollution to stores banning single-use plastic bags and promoting other reusable and recyclable materials. But now, with rollbacks on plastic regulations, intensified sanitary concerns, and the plummeting price of plastic, this virus is showing us that it has the potential to undo ALL of our progress and possibly even make the issue worse.
Now that the world has deemed single-use “virgin” plastics safer, recycled plastics aren’t as popular anymore. These recycled plastic companies are struggling to make profits when competing with the dropping prices of crude oil, the raw material used to make plastic which is harmful to the environment. Eadaoin Quinn, the director of business development at the recycling company EFS, said that “it's harder to make new sales when the virgin keeps going down”.
California, one of the first states to suspend their plastic bag ban, had deemed that sanitary safety was more important than environmental damage in these times. “After the ban was lifted, manufacturers went back to virgin plastic literally overnight,” Quinn said.
More importantly, plastics being safer could be a false claim by plastic companies who are looking to make a quick buck. The plastic industry has long argued that its products promote hygiene and safety, with reasonable evidence to say that that’s not the case. “All the science we’ve seen to date indicates [that] COVID-19 sticks strongest to plastic,” said Doug Cress, the vice president of an environmental nonprofit called the Ocean Conservancy. “So, really, it’s a misinformation campaign where fear, uncertainty, and confusion is high”. Though the science connecting the coronavirus safety to plastic is flimsy, the pandemic has allowed these companies to falsely claim their products are the best way to go, driving consumers back to plastic.
With the world attempting to combat the virus with intensified sanitary standards, the plastic industry has been allowed to drive consumers into buying single-use plastic over reusable materials.
As the number of cases and deaths climb, the international society is valuing the safety of its citizens over the environmental standards. However, there might be a way to deal with this pandemic while also adhering to environmental regulations.
Due to the drop in the prices of crude oil, the raw material used to make virgin plastic, more people are leaning towards the cheaper material. Therefore, discouraging the price drop by the means of taxes would deter more people from buying these plastics. At the same time, the international community could instead promote recycled plastics or use synthetic biodegradable plastic which can be disposed of without causing any environmental harm. If more people start using eco-friendly replacements to plastic, the prices of these materials will gradually drop, becoming an affordable choice that consumers can choose without guilt.
Additionally, since the coronavirus is the most stable on plastic surfaces and can linger on them for up to 3 days, using other materials as a replacement could help hinder the spread of the virus.
In these times, amid the confusion, fear, and uncertainty, it's hard to act with complete conscience of our environment and safety. Compromising environmental regulations for sanitary standards seems like the only way to go. However, when you look at the bigger picture, it's revealed that you can do both at the expense of demoting money-hungry plastic companies that are taking advantage of this situation. It’s a good trade, isn’t it?