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.
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