This article was produced and published by Cedric Choo from Global Initiatives.
Since the emergence of the COVID-19 outbreak, many countries have been taking measures to contain the spread of the virus.
Among such measures are guidelines and policies that emphasize the importance of proper hygiene and sanitation, which include the use of single-use products like masks and packaging for food.
This has once again reignited the debate about the environmental impact of single-use items, particularly plastic, this time with an added dimension regarding their indispensability in combating the spread of the virus.
A Growing Waste Problem
As the pandemic progressed and quarantine measures were imposed, the consumption of single-use items soared. These include plastic containers for food takeaways and packaging from online shopping, among other things.
According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), the domestic and trade sector generated 73,000 tonnes of waste in April, up from 66,000 tonnes in March.
While this rise in consumption of single-use plastics may be temporary due to the COVID-19 situation, some environmentalists are worried that the pandemic is undoing years of work towards a lower-waste society and ushering in a new normal of more wasteful behavior.
Given this situation, how do we then have a more honest conversation about the role of disposables and plastics if we want to move towards a more sustainable society?
An honest conversation that also considers their present importance in maintaining sanitation standards and preventing the wider spread of the virus.
The Single-Use Debate
Before the pandemic occurred, there were, on one hand, some environmentalists who advocated for a transition towards a lower-waste society where single-use disposables are limited or even eliminated entirely.
Data about the harmful effects of such single-use items on the environment, from the carbon emissions involved in their manufacturing, to the pollution of the land and oceans, gave momentum to such movements.
As a result, single-use items, like plastic straws and plastic bags, were widely demonized.
However, on the other hand, many businesses and corporations have pushed back against this rhetoric against plastic, emphasizing its importance as a cheap, versatile, and sanitary material for packaging various items.
With COVID-19, the consumption of single-use disposables has increased due to concerns over safety and cross-contamination – bottled water, plastic bags, and packaging are just some single-use items that have seen heightened demand.
This has vindicated some of the arguments put forward by plastic lobbies, particularly those related to sanitation and hygiene.
As a result of this, the pandemic has been straining waste management services at a time when labor supply is low while quarantine measures are still in place.
In Singapore, it has added fresh urgency to address the shortening lifespan of Pulau Semakau, after it was recently revised downwards from 2045 to 2035.
Moving forward from the pandemic requires us to reckon with both the need to be more sustainable while recognizing that single-use disposables still play a role in maintaining standards of hygiene and sanitation, especially when there is an outbreak of disease.
The challenge is in reconciling both these aims at the same time.
A Middle Ground
First, we need to acknowledge that there is currently overconsumption of disposable items in society, which contributes to problems like pollution and high carbon emissions. Of this, single-use plastic is one of the biggest contributors.
Plastic did not become mainstream until the 1950s, where annual production started to increase from 0 tonnes then to more than 350 million tons today.
Much of this plastic consumption – especially in the form of plastic bags or plastic packaging – is superfluous and redundant, the excessive consumption of which is taking a toll on our planet.
However, we also need to recognize that plastic can also play an important part in sanitation and preventing the spread of bacteria and viruses, especially during the time of a pandemic.
For one, plastic shields are becoming more widely adopted as its impermeable surface has been shown to function as an effective barrier against COVID-19. Similarly, ComfortDelGro has been trialing the use of plastic barriers in taxis to protect their drivers.
A Way Forward
Hence, while completely eliminating plastic consumption would not be feasible given their role in maintaining hygiene, there are policies and practices we can implement to reduce the excessive consumption of plastic and their negative impacts.
These measures can take place at the individual, business, and government levels.
For example, using reusable containers to takeaway food, or using reusable masks, can be a small start in reducing our consumption of single-use plastic. Businesses can change product designs to make them easier to recycle.
Likewise, governments can improve waste collection services and recycling facilities to prevent leakage of waste into the environment.
Together, these can reduce the excessive consumption of single-use disposables and prevent their leakage into the environment – all while recognizing that plastics still have an important role to play in maintaining sanitation and hygiene standards.