This post was first published by Business Green.
Earlier this year, Green Alliance launched a report called Fixing the system. It highlighted that, in response to considerable public pressure, the government was tackling plastic pollution, but only in a piecemeal fashion. We said that, although it was addressing individual uses, like some plastic bags and a small proportion of microbeads, and introducing charges on single use plastic items, it was still encouraging an ultimately unsustainable switch to other disposable materials. We proposed a more systemic and ambitious approach to material use to address plastic pollution, a top concern for both the public and politicians at the time.
Shortly after, a global pandemic was declared, and less than two weeks later, we entered lockdown. All non-essential shops were closed and the nation was instructed to stay at home. Understandably, environmental concerns took a back seat. The public and politicians have had more pressing problems to deal with.
But now, three months into lockdown, it feels like a good time to reassess the this problem and consider whether our recommendations remain valid.
Covid-19 has thrown up new challenges
The context in which we made our suggestions about solving the problem of plastic in particular, and throwaway living more generally, have utterly changed, to be sure. Even before the official lockdown, reusable cups were in the firing line, with some cafés and coffee shops banning them as a safety precaution. This line of thinking has since been cynically exploited by right wing think tanks and the plastic industry, particularly in the US, who now suggest that single use plastic is the answer to safety concerns.
We’ve seen a rise in the use of disposable plastic items in lockdown. This includes for takeaway food and drink, but also notably for the personal protective equipment (PPE) being used by health professionals and the public alike. At the same time, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented crash in the price of oil, with only moderate recovery to $35 a barrel, making virgin plastic cheaper than recycled. The economics of mechanically recycling plastic become challenging below $65 a barrel, and European plastic recyclers have reported a 20-30 per cent drop in demand.
We can choose a better approach
So, moves to end throwaway culture have undoubtedly taken a hit. But it shouldn’t be allowed to be permanent. Contrary to what some have said, the current crisis strengthens the case for continuing the drive away from single use plastic, and not just towards other single use materials. Instead, we should be implementing more resilient systems of reuse.
Take personal protective equipment (PPE) for example. Throughout lockdown, it has been devastating to hear of frontline healthcare workers unable to get the PPE they need. The government’s inability to source kit of the necessary quality has been nothing short of a national embarrassment. Doctors expressed justified outrage at having to reuse PPE designed for single use that might be contaminated with the coronavirus. The thing is, most PPE, including gowns, masks and visors, can be designed for reuse. And, if we had a good stock of reusable PPE and, crucially, the systems in place to hygienically treat them, such shameful shortages would be consigned to the dustbin of history. As a bonus, a vast amount of resources would also be conserved. If the public, too, opted for reusable rather than disposable plastic PPE, we would be much less likely to witness emerging, disturbing scenes where there are ‘more masks than jellyfish’ in our ocean.
And when it comes to packaging, claims that single-use, and often single-use plastic in particular, is the safest option aren’t backed up by the science as the virus can live on single-use surfaces as well as reusable ones. It remains viable on plastic for up to three days, according to scientific research, though it is worth noting the government guidance says the risks of transmission through food or food packaging are very low, in any case.
No better time to fix the system
But people’s safety concerns have to be taken seriously, making it more important than ever that material is handled hygienically throughout its chain of custody. In some ways, that might be easier to achieve with systems of reuse that have short supply and return chains. If companies invest now in the infrastructure for hygienic ‘delivery and take back’ models, they could better ensure the safety of their packaging than some single-use models where material can be touched by any number of people before the final purchaser.
Such systems will only deliver environmental benefits if used as intended, which means people need to know what to do and be willing to do it. With many of us spending considerably more time at home than in the past, now is the perfect time to test and embed new behaviours. This is even more true as people are increasingly turning to online shopping and subscription services, which offer opportunities to establish reuse models that maintain safety, enhance customer loyalty, provide convenience and, of course, reduce pollution and conserve valuable resources.
Coronavirus and the economic shutdown are presenting society with many stark choices. As with the wider economic recovery, it is far from guaranteed that greener options will win out when it comes to packaging, plastic and material use more generally. But three months on from our initial call for a more systemic approach, the case for this change is still as strong as it was.
There is no better time than now to fix the system.