Reusables in the Time of Covid

There has been a lot of talk about the quarantine being a sort of reset for much of the planet. On the whole it has, between animals returning to habitats normally filled with people, air pollution cleaning up at a surprisingly rapid pace, and with the link between human health and the health of the ecosystem being clearer than ever. But in one way we’ve taken a step back somewhat: with our single use plastic use. Today we’re going to look at how our single use plastic use is affected by the virus and what can be done.


A Rollback

New York City was set to ban plastic bags starting March 15th. Then the ban got postponed to May, then to June. New York City was not alone in this, a wave of single use plastic bans was sweeping the world throughout 2019 and 2020 right before the Covid19 crisis, and unfortunately many of those initiatives are being held back, delayed, or abandoned. Interestingly, the science isn’t exactly clear on the issue, but the fear is of course justified. No studies have been done on canvas bags, but the virus has been found to live for up to 3 days on plastic. As Covid is generally weaker on softer surfaces the implication is that there is less of a risk on the canvas, however when you are talking about a grocery worker handing hundreds of bags a day the smaller the risk the better. Plastic bags are not the only thing affected, Starbucks announced it will no longer be accepting reusable coffee cups at their stores, and many cafes followed suit. Of course the measure is temporary, but it does raise questions about the relationship between health, safety, and convenience.  


That said, it isn’t as if the alternative is to completely give up on issues of single use plastic waste. Responsible Cafes a network of coffee shops across Australia, has been advocating for a practice called contactless coffee, in which the barista fills a customers reusable mug without actually touching it, negating the risk to the server while still keeping the health of the planet in mind. Other reusable solutions have been proposed and put into action too, including washable (nonmedical grade) facemasks, bag-your-own canvas bag type setups, reusable face shields, proper sanitation protocols for dishware, and even stainless steel delivery dishware that works through heavily scrutinized sanitation systems. While certain changes to our lives and a certain amount of medically necessary single-use items are of course needed, there are alternatives to single-use plastic that are still safe. 

A Future

All of this Covid19 talk leaves the plastic pollution debate a little hanging. Opinions have unfortunately soured on plastic bans since the virus, and of course the plastic industry has lost no time in exploiting this crisis to push their product. But we need to keep in mind that plastic is a health risk for both humanity and the planet overall, even if the effects aren’t as immediate or obvious as a virus. From manufacturing plastic being a polluting chemical intensive process to ongoing and ubiquitous contact with plastic with as-of-yet unknown consequences, including microplastics in basically everything you drink. Styrene was recently upgraded from possible to probable carcinogen, and BPA has been linked to multiple health problems and is already banned for certain uses in countries across Europe. The trend and the science all point to plastic being something we need to leave in the past. Hopefully the spike in single use plastics from Covid19 will simply be temporary and we otherwise still move away from our plastic world.

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