By Emily Passmore
At the beginning of the year, it was easy to believe that 2020 would only see the zero-waste movement get stronger. After all, in the UK, 2019 saw commitments from ever more high street retailers, including major supermarkets such as Tesco and Morrisons, to cut down on their plastic usage. Furthermore, polling suggested half of Brits would be happy to pay more for a product if its packaging was eco-friendly. A similar pattern emerged globally, with Canada aiming to ban single-use plastics by 2021, and Peru banning single-use plastic at heritage sites.
Progress may have been slow, perhaps even dangerously slow, but progress was being made. In the time of coronavirus, that is no longer necessarily true.
The zero-waste movement strives towards a circular economy, where (almost) everything is reused rather than disposed. This means refillable packaging, repaired clothing and--for dedicated proponents of the lifestyle--a year’s worth of rubbish fitting into a single mason jar. But coronavirus can be spread through tiny droplets released from coughs and sneezes, and if a surface is contaminated by these droplets, anyone touching that surface is at risk. Reusable goods and containers might be handled by members of different households, and so are a clear example of potentially infected surfaces which could help spread the virus further.
Is it justifiable to continue promoting reusable goods during this pandemic? For the high street, the answer appears to be no. Schemes allowing customers to bring their own cups at stores such as Pret A Manger and Starbucks have been suspended since the early stages of the pandemic. This week, the US state of New Hampshire even banned the use of reusable shopping bags, a reversal of the usual trend towards banning single use plastic bags.
However, it is not clear just how necessary these steps are, given that an alcohol-based disinfectant will inactivate coronavirus within a minute, eliminating the risk posed by reusable goods. On the other hand, this process is itself likely to create waste, considering the environmental harm that can be caused by chemical production, as well as the fact that disinfectant tends to be packaged in disposable plastic containers. Moreover, this process requires a level of personal responsibility--it’s far from guaranteed that everyone would remember to disinfect, or more importantly, that everyone has access to the correct equipment to disinfect with. Single use plastic does not pose the same challenge.
It also does not guarantee sterility though. Plastic is handled throughout the production process, by an undetermined number of unknown people. Thus, it would be best practise to disinfect single use bags as well--especially as recent studies suggest Covid-19 can remain stable on plastic for up to three days. No similar research has been conducted on reusable bags, so it is impossible to truly know if the bans are warranted.
Nevertheless, single use plastic projects the illusion of sterility – and in a crisis where so much is uncertain, this should not be dismissed out of hand. Although regulations banning reusables may not be fully supported by scientific evidence, decisive regulation could help to quell public panic.
But is this a fair trade-off? The pandemic will end, and when it does, decisions such as the bans on reusable bags could have a lasting impact, stalling progress towards a circular economy. Some right-wing think tanks certainly seem to have this possibility in mind. Bans in the US were preceded by a lobbying campaign by organisations including the Manhattan Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Both groups accept money from fossil fuel companies, and both groups misrepresented the scientific research in their lobbying efforts. It doesn’t seem outlandish to suggest they may be more concerned with turning the tide on environmental policy than with public health.
This highlights the main issue the pandemic raises for the zero-waste movement: environmental concerns must take a back seat to urgent public health issues to some degree, but it is unclear exactly how much they should be discounted. Take clinical waste. Hospitals in Wuhan, the site of the first outbreak, generated six times as much waste at the peak of the virus compared to normal operations. The daily output was about 240 metric tons, about the weight of a blue whale, and a whole new waste plant had to be built to process it. But reusing medical equipment is impossible, and saving lives is clearly far more important in the short term than reducing waste production.
Single use bags do not carry the same importance--but should we not accept some uncomfortable policy decisions in the face of this public health emergency? To some degree, yes. But there is evidence that opponents of the environmental movement are using this moment to further their aims. A complete abandonment of the principles of the zero-waste movement seems an overreaction, and tactically unwise. Containing coronavirus must be the principal concern at the moment, but eventually, a vaccine will be developed and it will cease to be a concern at all. There seems to be no reason to renounce a zero-waste, circular economy as a goal to be strived towards, and no scientific backing to the suggestion that reusables are categorically less sterile than single use items. Thus, while coronavirus is undoubtedly a challenge to the zero-waste movement, as long as proponents take a compassionate but evidence-based standpoint throughout the crisis, it need not be the end of it.
Today marks the six-month anniversary of Michael Gove’s appointment as Environment Secretary. In the past, Gove had shown a fairly poor voting record on environmental issues, voting against a ban on “unconventional petroleum exploitation” and alongside that voted against a motion explicitly requiring environmental permits for natural gas fracking operations. The MP also had no previous experience in agricultural or environmental roles, previous roles being Justice and Education secretary, so his promotion sparked outcry from many. Ed Davey, the former Environment secretary, described the appointment as ‘an act of environmental vandalism’, and said it would be ‘like putting a wolf in charge of the chicken coop’.
The looming prospect of Brexit makes for uncertain times in the realm of UK environmental policy, and so in many ways Gove’s tenure takes place at a truly pivotal moment. So, what has he achieved since June?
In Yorkshire chainsaws run at dawn, residents scramble outside, realising that a terrifying crime is about to take place, a tree is to be felled. In Sheffield there is an ongoing battle to protect the nature that line the streets of the northern city since an agreement was signed in 2012 between Amey (an outsourced company) and the Labour run Sheffield council to organise the maintenance of the roads in the area. This has recently culminated in a battle to prevent the felling of trees by this company, organised often by local resident volunteers who seek to do all they can do in a peaceful capacity to prevent the chopping down of the trees. What is unique in this battle to my eye is that rarely has there been such intersection between environmental concerns and other social causes and campaigns.
The agreement is a 25 year long private finance agreement (PFI), a controversial way of organising the provision of government projects where they are provided by the private sector using public sector money. Not only does this introduce the profit motive into the maintenance of goods previously run for the public interest but it also removes the traditional methods by which the state was held accountable. When a state failed to provide a service or acted against the public interest it could be held accountable through the usual political methods of elections and lobbying. Now a private provider not only is not held politically accountable but can often lock themselves in as the only provider through the drafting of the agreements to last 25 years like the Sheffield case. No matter the pressure or change in government often the case may be that a council is contractually obliged to deal with the private company. Residents complain they have not been consulted by the felling firm and that the wishes of the community are being ignored.
Then early this year the pressure on the protesters increased, and arrests were made of those more active in preventing tree removal. These figures would scramble to stand around any tree under threat to prevent anybody damaging them. They were arrested under trade union legislation which criminalises anyone who persistently stops someone from carrying out lawful work. The amount of peaceful protests which could be considered illegal under this law does not bare thinking about. Luckily charges were dropped, and now the protesters are suing the police force in return. But now the high court has recently intervened with an injunction against the activity of surrounding the trees, leading to a counter blockade of a depot in Sheffield by protesters. One of those arrested was in fact a Green party Sheffield councillor, leading to even greater anxiety in the community, concerned about how they could respond. Even Michael Gove recently said he wanted to see an end to the felling of the trees, though the Labour council dismissed his demands.
The debacle has made one thing clear, the issues of privatisation and outsourcing whilst traditionally considered economic or social justice issues, in this case also intersects with environmental concerns about maintaining green spaces. Trees have a huge role in urban planning, not merely for aesthetic purposes but as sequesters of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. Forests remain one of the best ways to prevent flooding, a bigger and bigger concern as sea levels rise. There have been many identified mental health benefits of green spaces, as well as their purpose in educating communities about the importance of nature and ecosystems.
In a society that increasingly seeks to privatise things held in common, be it nature, healthcare or education there is simultaneously a breaking down of the barriers that kept the groups protecting them separate. In Sheffield you can find anti-privatisation protesters alongside human rights defenders all under the banner of increased environmental protection and democracy. The model of protest used in Sheffield remains one which is local, communities protecting their trees, but it also shows glimmers of being a broad tent movement in defence of nature.
If you want to find more about the crisis in Sheffield check out the campaign website here: https://savesheffieldtrees.org.uk/
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.