Of all the public health measures in place to protect people from COVID-19, one in particular has horrendous potential consequences for the environment.
Along with the pandemic has come a surge in use of single-use plastic bags, cups, straws, and utensils. Surfrider Foundation Canada regional coordinator Lilly Woodbury, however, says it’s a misconception that disposable goods are safer than reusables.
A recent statement signed by more than 125 health and science experts from 18 countries backs up her position. Published by Greenpeace USA and UPSTREAM (which are both members of the Break Free Plastic movement), the letter states reusable products can be used safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene.
“The promotion of unnecessary single-use plastics to decrease exposure to the coronavirus negatively impacts the environment, water systems, and potential food supply compared to the safe use of reusable bags, containers, and utensils,” wrote Mark Miller, former director of research at the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center, in the June 22 statement.
The statement came together following pauses on plastic bans around the world. The City of Vancouver has suspended education, outreach, and enforcement related to its Zero Waste 2040/ Single-Use Item Reduction Strategy until further notice.
“Many businesses, from independent-owned to massive multinational corporations like Starbucks, will not accept any type of reusable vessel despite the scientific evidence that proves reusables do not pose a threat for spreading the virus,” Woodbury tells the Straight. “Disposable items that are used once and then discarded have created a panoply of problems: filling up landfills, polluting oceans and freshwater ecosystems, threatening biodiversity, as well as contributing to the climate crisis as all plastics produced contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
“Despite what plastic lobby groups are stating, plastics do not safeguard public health,” she says. “Plastics are a threat to both the health of humans and the planet.”
The June 22 statement’s signatories and Surfrider Foundation Canada (which, like its U.S. parent, Surfrider Foundation, aims to protect oceans and beaches through an activist network) say the plastics industry is capitalizing on the pandemic-era shift to disposables while demonizing reusables.
In a letter to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year, Tony Radoszewski, head of the Plastics Industry Association, asked the federal body to stop the rush to ban disposables.
“Single-use plastic products are the most sanitary choice when it comes to many applications, especially the consumption and transport of food, whether purchased at a restaurant or at a grocery store,” Radoszewski wrote.
However, Woodbury maintains that soap and hot water are effective at killing coronavirus and notes that no cases of transmission via surfaces have been reported to date.
“We cannot afford to stall action on plastics when we're already behind on this issue,” Woodbury says. “More than ever, we need to ban single-use plastics and implement solutions for circular management of plastic products and packaging.”
Among the ways businesses can use reusable vessels and containers safely, Surfrider Canada suggests, is to have staff wear gloves and wash containers, either with soap and hot water or in a dishwasher, and wash their hands after removing gloves or handling used items.