Plastic in a pandemic: Society’s single-use security blanket

In this Feb. 5, 2018 file photo, plastic bottles and other plastics including a mop, lie washed up on the north bank of the River Thames in London. Photo Courtesy of Matt Dunham for AP News.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devoured most of 2020, which has driven people to consume more single-use items than ever before. A long list of items such as takeout containers, surgical masks, nitrile gloves, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer bottles are all in colossal demand, especially as the world begins opening up and people are directed to take extra precaution to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Despite the comfort single-use products give the public when it comes to staying healthy, disposable products’ escalating prominence brings unease in the world of environmental concerns.

While some may believe the environment is bouncing back to a healthier state after the travel decreased during worldwide lockdowns and closures, it might be naïve to believe a bright side to COVID-19 is its environmental impact. Notably, single-use items are posing an enormous environmental threat to local communities and globally. According to an article in Forbes, Ocean Conservancy scientists are concerned that the single-use plastic consumption’s surge due to COVID-19 will undo efforts to diminish pollution and bring about a devastating downward spiral.

Single-use personal protective equipment and takeout containers are among the most common products responsible for this new era of pollution. General manager at the Flagstaff Drury Inn and Suites, Blake Soreng said the hotel and other businesses didn’t get the choice to operate sustainably. Rather, businesses have been guided by both the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations and public conjectures in order to maintain income by keeping their customers feeling safe.

“We had to adapt to CDC recommendations to serve food safely,” Soreng said. “In the short term, we had to serve our food items in disposable to-go containers. Unfortunately, these containers produce more waste and cannot be recycled.”

Many could agree that the jump businesses made — or were directed to make — toward using only disposable materials seems logical. Though, according to an advisory and frequently asked questions flyer distributed by the Victoria State Government’s Health and Human Services Department, using disposable products like to-go containers and plastic cutlery might not even make a difference in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. The document stated that there is currently no evidence that would suggest the benefit of switching to disposable products.

While attempting to be extra cautious could justify the use of single-use products for many, the document advises proper hygienic and disinfecting practices, as cleaning reusable products appropriately does show evidence of preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Regardless, some continue to insist on the use of disposable products only. For example, some businesses, such as Starbucks, no longer allow customers to bring in their own reusable products like shopping bags, cups or food containers according to an article by the Los Angeles Times.

Soreng said that since washing materials properly can prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Flagstaff Drury Inn and Suites aims to move toward using nondisposable plates, bowls, glassware and cutlery. However, the appeal of takeout can make this difficult to achieve. Regardless of if single-use materials make a difference in preventing the spread, serving everyone in one space can seem unrealistic for the time being. Though Soreng also said that businesses opting for to-go containers made with recycled and recyclable materials are on the right track.

As consumers, people can choose to support businesses with recyclable to-go products, but can also make more sustainable decisions for themselves, so long as they make sure to properly clean and sanitize their reusable materials. For example, using reusable masks, shopping at stores that will allow one to bring their own grocery bags, using one’s own utensils instead of taking a restaurant’s plastic to-go utensils, etc.

And even when reusable products aren’t in the equation, Soreng suggested that people make sure they are conscious of their choices and do the best they can to limit single-use waste.

“I believe one of the best ways to stay safe with the use of nonrecyclables, and to keep the environment in mind, is to limit the amount used,” Soreng said. “Try to give it a few uses before throwing it away. Reuse a plastic cup, fill two meals in one to-go container, ask for a single fork instead of a package with three utensils.”

Without being conscious of how much waste we produce, Soreng said local landfills will become overwhelmed before our eyes.

Before COVID-19 consumed the world, the movement to eliminate single-use materials was making waves worldwide. Cities, states and countries were banning single-use plastic products left and right. Nonprofit organizations like the Surfrider Foundation and Ocean Conservancy still have single-use plastics at the front of their fight, though 2020 has brought about many obstacles that might have shifted most people’s focus. Regardless, many believe it is important to understand that avoiding plastic and single-use materials can still be a part of the new normal.