The ‘Other’ Pandemic: Are We Into The Second Wave Of Single Use Plastic?


Overall, the emergence of COVID-19 and the global response to it appeared to provide a solid foundation for green growth. On the surface, the great “Great Global Slowdown” caused by Covid-19 and its consequences  – reduced car traffic and emissions, a 99% decline in air passenger travel, factory production, and emissions slowing – had far more impact than any intentional sustainability policies.

Air quality improved, roads were quieter, rivers started to run clear, and wildlife began to re-integrate into their normal habitats. On top of this, people started to cherish their independence, their families and friends, rework their work-life balance, and were maintaining better hygiene practices than before in attempt to do their bit to slow the virus spread.

However, despite this sudden lifestyle overhaul and adoption of what is, on the surface, ‘green-living’, there are other areas of sustainability in which COVID-19 has had a less than positive impact.

Not too long ago single-use plastic was a pandemic in itself.

As a society over the last 18 months, we discovered what many viewed as a moral duty to reduce our plastic usage, substituting it with more sustainable materials, due to recyclability and wastage concerns – on average plastics take 1000 years to degrade. We certainly were taking great steps towards a more sustainable future in terms of plastic usage – in 2019 it was reported that approximately 53% of consumers had reduced their single-use plastic. However, COVID-19 has brought with it significant upsurge in plastic waste, for a variety of reasons.

Plastics play a pivotal role in our newly fashioned everyday lives. Some of these products may be necessary, for instance, PPE equipment such as gloves and that are crucial to prevent the virus’ transmission, hygiene packaging on medical and food supplies. Necessary usage aside, many plastics finding their way back into our everyday lives are still arguably avoidable e.g. non-reusable cleaning product bottles and surface wipes are often made of plastics alongside disposable utensils provided with takeaways that could easily remain wooden.

The plastic problem is and has always been endemic in the food industry – however, despite steps being taken towards sustainable packaging and even, in some cases, re-usable packaging – we are well and truly seeing a second wave of unsustainability.

Popular drinks chains such as Starbucks and Costa are no longer accepting the reusable coffee cups they themselves sold in an attempt to curb plastic wastage, and even items like single bread rolls that used to be open and up for grabs are now wrapped in plastic packaging in virtually every supermarket.

So, can we ever find a balance between our war on COVID-19 and our war on plastic pollution?

A great packaging ethics debate has formed in response. Should plastic be celebrated as a vital source of packaging to protect food from germs, or is it actually a carrier of the virus, providing a surface upon which it can live for up to three days – so, could it potentially be doing more harm than good? Does protecting food from contamination which may already be unlikely outweigh the hundreds of years it takes for the bag to break down, or the sea turtle it might kill whilst in the ocean?

Whilst a focus has shifted towards public hygiene and health – although, not a bad thing -are we forgetting the important and valuable progress that we had made regarding our prior concerns towards plastic pollution? Generally at present, people may not think about the fact that their bread roll is covered in plastic when doing a large food shop as they deem it to be the better option in regards to their personal health and safety, whereas before now making more environmentally conscious purchases were higher up on the agenda.

However, the onus of COVID-waste cannot be solely put on consumers – if the only option is to buy bread in a bag, you have to buy bread in a bag. Many of the decisions regarding plastic wrapping have come from new government guidelines on health and safety, or shops themselves making changes so inconspicuous that we just do not realise. For instance, many online grocers pre-COVID had an ‘opt-out’ option for plastic bags on home delivery, yet this option has now been removed. Tiny steps back such as these, which may go unmissed, may trigger leaps backwards in regards to sustainability.

Under pressure from a lot of campaigners, food companies therefore have this added issue to think about. Does a consumer want their fruit and vegetables tightly wrapped in plastic to provide them some sense of security, or is it safer out of the bag? Or, what are the other options – the virus has been suggested to survive on cardboard for only 24 hours as opposed to the 72 hours on plastic, so, do we put our bananas in boxes now? The answers are not black and white.

Even though this is a momentous period of change in the history of health, it doesn’t mean we have to lose energy on the great efforts that we have had regarding the planet and the issues of plastic pollution. It’s just a case of figuring out what we need to do to prevent us reverting back to our old ways. The food and drink industry is in a great position to continue pressing on with this positive change.

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Interested in opening up a conversion with the HRA Global team about what could be the second wave of single use plastic? Contact us today.

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