Fear, convenience and an abundance of take-out food have led to a huge spike in single-use plastics during the coronavirus pandemic, from grocery bags to sporks.
Concerned that the return to plastic could set back U.S. recycling and sustainability efforts, scientists and environmental groups are trying to reassure consumers about the safety of reusable items and encourage businesses to do what they can to limit plastic use.
Over the past few months, as the novel coronavirus spread worldwide, consumers and retailers worried that reusable items could hasten transmission. Just months after many cities and states banned the use of plastic bags in stores, they were back. Limited to take-out and delivery service, restaurants have been forced to use large amounts of disposable containers and utensils. Used personal protective equipment (PPE), much of it plastic, also has been filling trash containers.
In states where restaurants have been opening even on a limited basis, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines recommended establishments use disposable serving materials and dinnerware as well as single-use condiments and disposable or digital menus.
The use of polystyrene plastic (more commonly known as Styrofoam) in particular has shot up. Two manufacturers of polystyrene products, Ineos Styrolution and Trinseo, have experienced “double-digit percentage sales increases in the food packaging and health-care industries” in February, March and April, Bloomberg reported.
To allay consumers’ and retailers’ fears, a group of 119 international scientists released a statement confirming that reusable items are no more likely to spread the virus than disposable ones, as long as they are effectively cleaned.
“Available evidence indicates that the virus spreads primarily from inhaling aerosolized droplets, rather than through contact with surfaces,” according to the scientists' statement. "Single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables, and causes additional public health concerns once it is discarded." Reusable items and hard surfaces are safe to use after they have been cleaned thoroughly with hot water and soap or disinfectants, the scientists said.
As for retailers, the group recommends store personnel limit contact with customers’ personal items, such as cups and bags, and vigorously disinfect any hard surfaces.
The virus has been shown to live on a number of materials, and according to one study, it lingered three times longer on plastic than on other samples that were tested.
“The plastic industry seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to try to convince people that single use plastic is necessary to keep us safe, and that reusables are dirty and dangerous,” maintained John Hocevar, Greenpeace’s ocean campaign director, in a CNBC article. “The fact that neither of these things is supported by the best available science was irrelevant.”
Consumers and retailers can take steps to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics, even when it comes to take-out. When the pandemic started, the Just Salad restaurant chain had to abandon the reusable bowls it sold to customers --the innovation had saved more than 75,000 pounds of plastic a year--and shift to strictly takeout and delivery orders. The company decided to make a change to its online ordering form and ask customers if they needed plastic utensils, which usually went into an order automatically. Not only did the move save the chain money, but the amount of outgoing plasticware dropped by 88 percent.
People can still try to bring their own bags to grocery stores and wash them regularly, experts said. At least one state, Connecticut, no longer is automatically providing plastic bags and reinstated its 10-cent- per-plastic-bag fee for stores and restaurants July 1. The governor had suspended the fee in March. If stores elsewhere won’t allow cloth bags, shoppers can request paper bags or ones made from compostable material or keep cardboard boxes in their cars for purchases.
Since many beverage shops are not filling reusable cups, the most economical thing for coffee drinkers to do is brew their daily java at home.
Accurately sorting items for recycling can help reduce waste as well.
Experts are hopeful that once the pandemic eases, recycling and sustainability will become even greater public priorities than they were before the virus. "Public health must include maintaining the cleanliness of our home, the Earth," Dr. Mark Miller, former director of research at the U.S. National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center said in a public statement. "The promotion of unnecessary single-use plastics to decrease exposure to the coronavirus negatively impacts the environment, water systems, and potential food supply compared to the safe use of reusable bags, containers and utensils."
Image credit: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash
Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT. Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.