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Single-use plastic: A Covid conundrum

Prior to the pandemic, countries around the world were making strides in eliminating plastic waste, primarily by discouraging single-use plastics.

 

Government initiatives such as the plastic bag charge, and plastic straw ban, were complemented by organisational initiatives such as certain coffee chains offering a discount for customers who brought reusable cups, or supermarkets redesigning their packaging to use less plastic. All this was helping to protect the planet from the harm of plastic waste.

However, along came Covid-19, and suddenly the idea of ‘reusable’ plastics and their alternatives became, well, a bit icky! Even now that you can go to a pub, you might think twice about using one of their trendy metal reusable straws! And it’s not just other people’s germs that will cause a problem. That takeaway coffee you’ve been longing for won’t be poured into your own swanky reusable cup because the coffee company doesn’t want any of your germs either!

So, is the reusable plastic revolution over before it really got going?

You may be thinking that there are still alternatives that bridge the gap between environmental protection and hygiene, such as compostable plastics. However, according to researchers at the University of Sheffield, the manufacture of so called bio-plastics often has a bigger carbon footprint than ordinary plastics. These plastics are also often marked ‘compostable’, which makes it sound like you could chuck them on the garden and watch them biodegrade, but in reality they require treatment in an industrial composter. The researchers argue that the marketing of these plastics, which they label ‘greenwashing’ actually encourages people not to reuse or recycle as they believe that they can just throw these items away without guilt. Even the inimitable supermarket ‘bag for life’ is seen as disposable, with some major brands reporting evidence that some customers are now treating these as single use.

Some companies, such as the National Trust, use recycled, plant-based materials in place of plastics, meaning that their throwaway ‘plastics’ really can be thrown away. Even the wrapping for their magazine is made of potato starch instead of plastic! However, the trust has a mandate to preserve the British countryside for future generations, so for them this decision reinforces their brand. Other companies will find the costs of switching out all their single use plastics prohibitive, especially if that will involve passing on increased costs to the customer, and particularly right at the start of a recession (thanks again, Covid!).

Nevertheless, there are signs that the larger companies are prepared to take on this challenge, with Morrisons announcing this week that they are trialling paper bags instead of plastic ‘Bags for Life’ in several of their stores, with the aim of rolling the scheme out nationwide if it meets customer approval.

 

With 8 billion tonnes of plastic currently on earth, and 10 million tonnes of it leaking into the oceans every year, let’s hope that the steps taken by brands like the National Trust, and Morrisons show that the drive towards reducing our plastic waste won’t be a permanent casualty of the Covid crisis.