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Plastic Free July – Is it Realistic During a Pandemic?

Plastic Free July - Is it Realistic During a Pandemic?
27 July 2020
 

Plastic Free July is a global movement that encourages people to refuse single-use plastics, but COVID-19 is challenging this from multiple angles.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way businesses and individuals think about disposing of their waste, as well as driving demand for single-use products. The UK government has suspended charges for plastic bags used in online grocery deliveries in England, some restaurants and cafes have been forced to refuse personal reusables such as coffee mugs, and non-healthcare businesses are using disposable PPE to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

All of this will have a consequence for initiatives such as Plastic Free July, and sustainability commentators are urging calling for plastic pollution’s place on the business agenda not to be lost.

 

“We’ve witnessed an increase in demand for plastic bag recycling as people can no longer return their shopping bags with their online deliveries, and also a surge in orders for single-use plastic, coffee cup and compostable packaging recycling services from the hospitality industry. This is completely aligned with pubs, bars and restaurants moving more to plastic cups and cutlery, and coffee shops ditching re-useables for single-use coffee cups.”

–Bruce Bratley

CEO, First Mile

 

Plastics Industry Focusses on Hygiene Benefits

 

To mark its 10-year anniversary, the Plastic Free July challenge has been calling on people to choose to refuse single-use plastic in a bid to help exceed last year’s worldwide efforts and hit the global target of 1 billion kilos of waste avoidance. The scheme is also driven by a “heightened sense of urgency” to reinstate the positive progress made in reducing plastic waste and pollution.

Part of the plastic “problem” during the pandemic is that single-use items are viewed as less of a risk and the more sanitary option for consumers and businesses. Jessica Heiges and Kate O’Neil, environmental science academics from the University of California, wrote that the issue of hygiene is one of driving forces behind the switch to non-reusables, in a piece published by The Conversation:

“Plastic packaging, the argument goes, protects public health by keeping contents safe and sealed. Also, discarding items immediately after use protects consumers from infection.”

They continue, “However, studies show that these products are not necessarily safer than reusable alternatives with respect to COVID-19. The virus survives as long on plastic as it does on other surfaces such as stainless steel. What’s more, studies currently cited by the plastics industry focus on other contaminants such as E.coli and listeria bacteria, not on coronaviruses.

“Viewed more holistically, plastics generate pollutants upstream when their raw materials are extracted and plastic goods are manufactured and transported. After disposal – typically via landfills or incineration – they release pollutants that can seriously affect environmental and human health, including hazardous and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

“All of these impacts are especially harmful to minority and marginalized populations, who are already more vulnerable to COVID-19. In our view, plastic goods are far from being the most hygienic or beneficial to public health, especially over the long term.”

 

Contributing to Green Recovery Through Recycling

 

Bruce Bratley, CEO of First Mile, a waste and recycling company, stresses that there is a huge role for recycling to play here. He also highlights the added problem of littering that comes with increased plastic consumption”

“Society seems to have taken a backward step in the wake of coronavirus when it comes to single-use plastics, not to mention littering.

“The new COVID-19 regulations and subsequent behaviours are sadly not helping people in their bid to reduce plastic-use. But there is absolutely a role for recycling to play. We’ve witnessed an increase in demand for plastic bag recycling as people can no longer return their shopping bags with their online deliveries, and also a surge in orders for single-use plastic, coffee cup and compostable packaging recycling services from the hospitality industry. This is completely aligned with pubs, bars and restaurants moving more to plastic cups and cutlery, and coffee shops ditching re-useables for single-use coffee cups. 

“This increased plastic consumption is far from ideal in the long term, but while we are using more, both businesses and consumers must make sure that they are recycling them properly and not further compounding the problem by disposing of plastic items incorrectly, or worse littering our local parks and streets. At least they can be safe in the knowledge that through recycling, they are contributing to a green recovery, as opposed to landfilling which will only exacerbate climate change.”

 

Disinfect and Reuse

 

Steve Malkin, CEO of Planet First, is an experienced sustainability consultant and creator and custodian of The Planet Mark, an internationally-recognised sustainability programme that helps organisations reduce their carbon year-on-year. He agrees that that are still ways that people can make a conscious effort to reduce plastic consumption during the pandemic:

“We can still make conscious efforts to use, and disinfect reusable bags, make a coffee at home in a reusable cup and avoid single-use plastics wherever possible. It is when we are tested that we see the best of people, and now is the time to come together to unleash the full force of human ingenuity to tackle the pandemic, plastic pollution and the climate crisis in this decade of action.” 

The Planet Mark is joining in with Plastic Free July efforts by releasing a business toolkit to help companies manage their waste and recycling process, which can be downloaded here

Picture: A photograph of a plastic shopping bag

Article written by Ella Tansley | Published 27 July 2020

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