At the beginning of 2020, eight states and dozens of cities had banned single-use plastic bags. Environmental activists and proponents of a zero waste economy were finally gaining momentum as the cultural shift of carrying reusable bags, water bottles, and straws was reaching almost every corner of the nation. Unfortunately, COVID-19 brought a sudden and dramatic halt to this positive streak as fears of spreading the novel coronavirus took precedence over all other concerns.
Hospitals have seen a huge rise in the need for both personal protective equipment (PPE) and non-reusable medical equipment as the total confirmed number of coronavirus cases approaches 9 million globally. We also see this reflected outside of the healthcare system with essential workers, from public transit employees to sanitation workers, requiring medical-grade PPE and everyday individuals wearing masks and gloves simply to go grocery shopping. All of these single-use items get thrown away (or thrown into the street) and eventually make their way into a landfill—or as we have seen with the rest of the waste we generate, into the ocean.
The additional waste is not only masks and gloves, as countless single-use items are surging back into popularity. Take-out and delivery orders from restaurants, which come in Styrofoam or plastic containers, are the only options now that restaurants cannot seat customers. Some establishments will not allow customers to bring in their reusable cups, and other stores prohibit reusable bags. Progress has been most urgently stopped at the municipal level, with states and cities that had banned single-use plastic bags rolling back the legislation to allow their use once again.
Many of these behavioral changes are necessary—the health of the global population is understandably the first priority. But some of these changes have been brought on not by necessity, but the plastics is taking advantage of a time of crisis. Six months ago, single-use plastics were the enemy of almost everyone. Companies were shifting toward recycled materials and encouraging reusable options, everyone had a reusable water bottle and a metal straw, and saving the sea turtles was a rallying cry the entire political spectrum seemed to be able to agree on. Now, as single-use PPE becomes standard across many occupations and people are discouraged from utilizing reusables, we are seeing the world take a step back on the small environmental achievements we were making. Moving forward, how can we balance the need to protect human health while working toward a more sustainable world?
People need to begin by ensuring the burden is placed on those responsible for so much of the waste plaguing the natural world. Companies need to feel the pressure to ensure they are utilizing recycled materials and reusable options not only when it is cheapest for them to do so, but at every opportunity. Individuals have been convinced that this is a problem for them to solve, when really this is an issue for those in power to tackle. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed so much of the structural inequality this world is built upon, but it presents a new opportunity to rebuild a world that works for everyone. This includes building sustainability and zero waste into our societal systems to ensure that the waste we generate is not only kept out of the ocean, but that it does not need to be thrown away in the first place.