The effect of COVID-19 on single-use plastics

Over the last two decades, significant and successful steps have been taken to eradicate single-use plastics. Large retail outlets have done away with shopping bags, fast-food chains no longer use plastic cutlery, and the infamous plastic straw has been replaced with paper or stainless-steel versions.

Then in 2020, COVID-19 comes along, and within a few weeks, everything changed. The stores which once banned plastic bags are now using them again; individual pastries, bread, and even vegetables are wrapped in plastic bags to avoid other people from touching what you buy. Where just a few months before coffee shops rewarded customers for using reusable coffee mugs, they now use only disposable plastic cups and lids, wrapped straws, and plastic spoons – The Coronavirus pandemic created another one simultaneously – the single-use plastic pandemic.

We asked people on the streets why they thought it was now ok to be using single-use plastic (not considering masks, gloves, and other protective wear). Many said that it was to protect items they buy from being contaminated with the virus and therefore to protect them from catching the virus.

In this case, can’t we use other, more environmentally friendly methods, to achieve this layer of protection? Considering that plastic as a material can hold the virus for as long or longer than many other materials, why is plastic being chosen as the safest material from the perspective of spreading the virus?

“Simply put,” says Dr Grażyna Fabiś, Clariter’s Senior R&D Specialist “one of the major benefits of plastic in comparison to paper, for example, is the fact that plastic can be disinfected using high-percentage alcohol, or cleaned with water and soap. This removes the virus from the surface of the packaging easily. The other materials are either too expensive to use for mass production, such as copper, or too porous to disinfect such as paper or cardboard”. This combined with the reasoning that plastics can be produced in many different forms, durability, weight, and the variety of texture enables not only the production of gloves, face protectors, and other personal protective equipment (PPE), but also for example plates, forks, and straws relatively cheap comparing to other materials.

And so, there is justification for a resurgence in the production and use of single-use plastics. But how will this affect the fight against plastic waste? Can this plastic be recycled and if so, how?

Dr Grażyna Fabiś explains “Plastic packaging and single-use plastic items, excluding PPE, may be recycled safely using standard methods of home separation and collection. The coronavirus will be destroyed during elevated temperatures that are used, for example, in the chemical recycling of polyolefins (350-450°C). But for that purpose, this plastic should be separated and delivered directly to the recycling companies. As in this situation, there is a risk for workers dealing with waste to be exposed to potentially infected products.”

One can only hope that we won’t wait until the end of the Coronavirus pandemic to remind ourselves of the hugely devastating effect that plastic waste has on our planet. Plastic won’t go away. We need it. It is, however, our responsibility, and the responsibility of our governments, municipalities and brand owners to work together in a structure that enables, guides, and incentivises us to recycle.

And not just that. Plastic packaging producers should design and develop their products with “protecting the environment” in mind, and only produce packaging from easily recyclable materials.

Single-use plastics can, and must be, recycled. It is up to all of us to utilise both mechanical recycling and the chemical (advanced) recycling methods in order to reach the maximum recycling capabilities.

How will you do your part?

This is an opinion article written by Clariter.

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