Scientists Remind Us That Single-Use Plastics Can Be Unsafe Amid a Pandemic

All the plastic from food deliveries and online shopping is piling up. But as a group of experts point out, disposable plastics aren’t inherently safer when it comes to possible virus transmission.
June 23, 2020, 9:31am
greenpeace, plastic, covid-19, pollution
Photo: Magda Ehlers/Pexels

Much has been said about the unexpected positive environmental impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

For one thing, with fewer commuters on the road and air travel at a fraction of pre-outbreak levels, the pandemic has brought air pollution levels down globally. Nitrogen dioxide pollution has fallen by an average of 40 percent in Chinese cities, and by 20 to 38 percent over Western Europe and the United States as compared to last year. In New York City, carbon monoxide is down by half.

Meanwhile, reduced public transportation and shuttered businesses have led to a reduction in noise pollution, and a lack of daytrippers and international tourists has resulted in clear water in the canals of Venice for the first time in decades.

However, the pandemic has aggravated one environmental issue: plastic pollution.

As millions of people under lockdown around the world turn to delivery services to maintain social distancing—and as some groups take advantage of COVID-19 fears to try to roll back plastic bag bans—concerns are emerging of a massive surge in disposable plastic waste, already a global scourge. Even coffee shops in the early days of the pandemic stopped filling customers’ reusable cups citing fears of cross-contamination.

On Monday, more than 115 scientists and public health experts issued a statement reassuring the public of the safety of reusable containers and reminding people that disposable plastics carry the same risks of infection as their reusable counterparts.

“Reuse and refill systems are an essential part of addressing the plastic pollution crisis and moving away from a fossil fuel-based economy,” the group of experts said. “Based on the best available science and guidance from public health professionals, it is clear that reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene.”

Citing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the experts noted that while transmission of the virus from a contaminated surface is possible, current research shows that transmission through close contact with an infected person via aerosolized droplets containing the virus “is the only documented method of COVID-19 transmission to date.”

The environmental group Greenpeace’s Philippines arm on Monday released a statement of its own, citing the scientists’ position and calling on local governments to keep up efforts to reduce single-use plastic consumption in the archipelago, noting a proposal in Quezon City to defer a planned ban on single-use plastic bags.

“Protecting the public's health must include maintaining the cleanliness of our home, the Earth,” Dr. Renzo Guinto, a Filipino physician and expert on public health and the environment, said in the statement. “We don't need to choose one over the other—we can protect ourselves from COVID-19 while protecting the environment.”

Both Greenpeace and the group of experts pointed out all plastics, disposable and reusable alike, can harbor the coronavirus for up to six days.

“Single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables, and causes additional public health concerns once it is discarded,” the group of experts said in their statement.

Greenpeace Philippines, meanwhile, went on to urge stakeholders to seek permanent change as a result of the pandemic.

“There has been a growing call for a better normal after the pandemic and that should include dramatic reductions in plastic waste,” Greenpeace campaigner Marian Ledesma said.

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