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Meet the Innovators Ensuring the COVID Plastic Boom Doesn't Last Forever

With health concerns momentarily outweighing mindful consumption, global efforts to wean the world off of single-use plastics have ground to a halt — and suddenly, in the race to protect citizens, plastic is everywhere. Thankfully, lockdown has also triggered radical, sustainable innovation and ingenuity.

Unsurprisingly, plastic is having a bit of a resurgence. Its wipe-clean-ability; its disposability; its apparent standard-setting hygiene offering. In the era of COVID-19, people are happy to see plastic again; and businesses, nervous of contributing to poor public health, are making few apologies for using more of the material.

According to BloombergNEF (BNEF) research, demand for plastic packaging is likely to increase, at least in the short term: “Concerns around food hygiene due to COVID-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity, undoing some of the early progress made by companies,” it stated in a report.

In Europe, plastics manufacturers have gone further, using the threat of Coronavirus to rally against an incoming ban on single-use plastics.

With concerns for health momentarily outweighing mindful and ethical consumption, global efforts to wean the world off of single-use plastics have ground to a halt. All of a sudden, in the race to protect citizens, plastic is everywhere — with the industry keen to point out the revolutionary role plastic has played in medical care. From face masks and syringes to surgical gloves and catheters, plastic has dominated the sector and helped reduce the risk of infection.

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And given that Coronavirus is said to survive on plastic surfaces for up to nine days, single-use and throwaway plastic products have been the go-to safest options throughout this period. As Tony Radoszewski, Head of the Plastics Industry Associationdeclared back in March: “Single-use plastics can literally be the difference between life and death.”

Thankfully, activists haven’t gone missing in the face of a possible rollback of action on phasing out unnecessary plastic. In fact, lockdown has triggered radical innovation and ingenuity — to develop sustainable solutions that also protect public health.

Contactless coffee

Take Rebecca Burgess, for example. Just a week after the US reported its first case of Coronavirus with no connection to overseas citizens, Starbucks quickly banned customers from bringing in their reusable coffee mugs. Many other coffee chains all over the world adopted similar policies, increasing the uptake in single-use coffee cups once more.

So, Burgess’ sustainable behaviour change firm, City to Sea, has set up a #ContactlessCoffee initiative to encourage coffee shops now reopening in the UK to accept reusable coffee cups from customers in a way that is safe and secure.

“We knew [UK coffee shops] wanted to start serving hot drinks in reusable cups again, but just weren’t sure what the guidance was,” she told Sustainable Brands™.

So, the firm set out a simple, four-step process and video to help them do just that.

Since launching in Bristol with Better Food Co, UK-wide chains Boston Tea Party and Costa Coffee are now also accepting reusables, alongside lots of indies. “We make our way through around 3 billion disposable cups a year, and less than 1 percent of them are recycled — so, this one change could have a huge impact on our planet,” Burgess adds.

City to Sea has also established a cross-industry task force looking at the issue of reusables during COVID-19. The group has more than 20 organisations, including Starbucks, the Sustainable Restaurant Association and Zero Waste Scotland.

Plastic-free PPE

Image credit: A Plastic Planet

Elsewhere, a group of companies have teamed up to prove that the healthcare profession doesn’t have to turn to plastic when it comes to sourcing personal protective equipment (PPE).

The campaign group A Plastic Planet has been working with Reelbrands and Transcend Packaging to create the world’s first plastic-free visors worn by frontline workers and medical staff. Made from wood pulp and paper board, they are both recyclable and home compostable.

It is hoped that more than one million of the PPE visors will be made every week. Yodel, a delivery service provider to the NHS, has already put in an order. Meanwhile, A Plastic Planet is also working with TerraCycle to collect visors from dedicated disposal bins to be recycled.

Affecting us all

The pandemic has also made it hard for individuals and businesses to avoid the extra use of plastic. Even social media star Lauren Singer, who had not sent an item of rubbish to landfill in more than eight years, has been struggling. In an Instagram post to her hundreds of thousands of followers, she admitted stockpiling products in preparation of lockdown, many of which were packaged in plastic.

But as the BNEF analysis predicts, the current spike in demand for plastic is likely to be temporary and should not impact circular economy goals. Whether the general public will continue to put more focus on public health — and the benefits plastic brings in protecting us against virus infection — than sustainability, only time will tell, Burgess says. Though she remains optimistic: In a recent City to Sea survey, just 9 percent of people said they want things to go back to ‘normal’ — a clear indication of the public’s desire for change, she says.

Meanwhile, 36 percent of people felt they had been pushed into using more single-use plastic due to COVID-19; and 70 percent of those surveyed had not changed their feelings about plastic pollution, despite lockdown.

“It’s possible to look after our human health and the health of the planet at the same time,” she asserts.