As the world is gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, cutting down on single use plastic might seem like a drop in the ocean. Understandably, governments and organisations have different priorities while gripped in a global pandemic.
And yet, there are consequences of changing attitudes to single-use plastics that we might not have even considered. There’s a delicate balancing act to strike between doing whatever it takes to protect people against coronavirus, without losing sight of what’s important for our long-term futures. Here are some less-considered consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Elevated risk for workers who help combat plastic waste. This specifically applies to waste pickers working in the informal sector across many parts of the world, including Asia, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil. These important workers are often the backbone of plastic waste management – in Indonesia, for example, the informal sector is responsible for collecting one million tonnes of plastic waste every year, and 70% of this is recycled. During the coronavirus pandemic, these workers are faced with a bleak choice: put themselves at heightened risk due to contaminated waste and a lack of social distancing, or lose out on their means of making a living. This isn’t an adequate solution for waste management, and it’s certainly not acceptable for the people working in dangerous conditions every single day. Informal sector workers provide a vital service, and more needs to be done to protect them so they can do their important work without risk.
- Cheaper plastic production and ends to bans on plastic. Due to plummeting oil prices (directly linked to coronavirus posing a challenge to global supply and demand), virgin plastic prices are lower, making it cheaper to produce and increasing its appeal. This sets a worrying precedent, where people need to weigh up the cost to their businesses and the cost to the planet. There has also been an increase in plastic bag usage as supermarkets offer contact-free deliveries. California has lifted its plastic bag ban in efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus, and closer to home, the ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds has been pushed back. “Given the huge challenges posed to businesses by coronavirus, we have confirmed we will delay the introduction of our ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds until October 2020,” Defra said in a statement.
- Challenging the viability of recycling. This is another consequence of those lower oil prices – recycling is becoming less financially viable. If it’s more expensive to recycle plastic than to buy it new, there’s little incentive there for companies to do the right thing for the environment. Consumer brands may struggle to meet their commitments to recycling, and virgin plastic could creep back in.
- More plastic waste from takeaways. Many restaurants and food/beverage businesses are now offering takeaways, which is a great initiative to keep businesses running. However this also means a surge in packaging, especially as there are now bans on reusable options such as coffee cups. While it’s difficult to know exactly how much plastic packaging is being used, a survey shows that food wastage is rising significantly during the coronavirus pandemic. Society certainly doesn’t seem to be becoming any less wasteful.
Of course, plastic usage is also higher in healthcare settings, where it’s instrumental in protecting frontline workers and preventing the spread of coronavirus. It’s necessary to take stock of the fact that plastic is a necessary facet of the world we live in, and gloves, masks and disposable bags are more essential than ever. It’s also necessary to look at the bigger picture – coronavirus is devastating enough, without the danger of it halting progress on plastic-free initiatives. It would be an even bigger tragedy for us to lose momentum now, and there’s still a great deal we can do. Protecting key workers and protecting the planet don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
As a marine conservation charity, we are acutely aware of the fact that the fight against coronavirus needs all the resources it can get. But it’s important we don’t lose our focus and keep fighting for our planet.
If you want to take positive action, here are some tips to help as we adjust to a new normal:
- Order in bulk, or shop local. If you can, shop locally for food and goods, and avoid excess waste where possible – this also has the added bonus of supporting local businesses.
- Help people who might be struggling. Ask after elderly neighbours, talk to family members and see if people who are shielding need any help if you’re popping to the shops, or see if you can share a delivery. This will help cut down on waste from multiple deliveries – and you’ll be helping people out too.
- Recycle as much as you can. Pick restaurants offering deliveries packaged in recyclable containers and make sure you’re still recycling as much as possible. Recycling systems are under pressure, but it’s still better to recycle wherever possible.
- Look for the positives. As people’s movements are restricted, the planet is making a startling recovery. There are definitely lessons to be learned about treating our planet with more respect as we resume our everyday lives.
- Keep supporting the causes you care about. If you’ve financially able to, it’s so helpful to keep up your charitable donations. If you can’t, you can still track progress and follow positive news, helping to spread the word about important work. Keep that positive focus in your life, and know that you can still make a difference no matter what.
It can be hard to see the light beyond this global pandemic, but taking positive actions – even small ones – will help make the world a better place. Once we’re through the pandemic, global leaders will have no choice but to think carefully about our futures – let’s hope our battle with coronavirus highlights the need to protect and preserve what’s precious to us. GreenSeas Trust will be here fighting for plastic-free oceans every step of the way.