Are Single-Use Plastics a Global Scourge or Necessity?
The answer, on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day occurring during a pandemic, is both. Single-use plastics have always had pros and cons, but the scale has temporarily shifted. Yes, SUPs are a serious problem. It’s tempting to say they should just be eliminated. (And I have, here and here, as well as keeping track of places where they have been.) The evidence of the problem is overwhelming, from heart-wrenching images of animals killed or maimed (turtles and albatrosses especially) to beaches covered in detritus. And then there is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Moreover, there are ways we can eliminate virtually all of our use of SUPs. After all, we did pretty well without them until a few decades ago.
The major exception has been medical applications. Yes, hospitals and doctors’ offices functioned without them in times past, but medical care has changed and SUPs in the form of things such as biohazard containers and IV bags would be difficult if not impossible to replace. And in many cases, finding ways to sterilize used items is simply not cost-effective, which makes their existence even more crucial in this pandemic. No one has seriously suggested eliminating those applications of SUPs.
In fighting COVID-19, those who have reduced or removed SUPs from their lives face a distasteful choice in order to preserve those lives. Plastic bags and disposable gloves surround us, and it’s difficult in this moment to eliminate them from our daily lives, let alone admonish others.
When I received a grocery delivery (yes, we got a delivery slot after a week), it came in a trunk load of plastic bagged items. Compounding this evil was the fact that those bags had – finally – just been banned in New York State, where I live. But it was hard to argue with the appropriateness of the packaging, much of it double-bagged. And we were, if not overjoyed, at least relieved to see our tomatoes and carrots bagged in plastic within the plastic. In fact, thinking of the at-risk elderly parents we are isolating with, we selected produce that was pre-packaged in those clamshell plastic containers or sealed plastic bags in the theory that they had been handled less than loose items.
You could see this as putting ourselves selfishly ahead of the planet, an equation that had been written much differently until now. We could rationalize that it wasn’t actually selfish, that we were contributing to the health of others who, despite carefulness and social distancing, we might put at risk.
In order to partially justify those grocery bags, we sequestered them for a few days so that we could reuse them. They’ve become handy for uses like safely handling the mail.
The question is what our attitude toward plastic bags and take-out utensils will be when this is all over. Will, for instance, that NYS plastic bag ban that took years to achieve be revoked? Will the recent resistance to plastic straws – even though they have little to do with contagion – be lost? Or, will the need to return to normalcy also mean moving ahead with environmental movements that had been becoming mainstream? And another possibility: that we will see climate change for what it is, a slow-moving pandemic. (The bad news: we have a president who has called both of them a hoax.)
Is it “too soon” to start talking about this? Perhaps. But whether the answers are ones that we want to hear or not, it’s important for our own and everyone’s wellbeing, emotionally as well as environmentally, that we think beyond our temporary crisis.